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Mine blast investigation in works

Chip Ellis
Hannah Cash (right) holds a photo of her grandfather, Michael Elswick, during Monday's wreath-laying ceremony at the state Capitol. She was joined by other family members, including her father Philip Cash and brother Justin Cash to her left. Elswick was among 29 miners who died in last week's explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
Chip Ellis A bagpiper plays at the end of Monday's ceremony. Several wreaths were laid at the foot of the coal miner statue on the state Capitol grounds.
Chip Ellis Miner Travis Holdren fights back tears for his friends during Monday's ceremony.
Chip Ellis Jack Dowling (right) of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team says a quick prayer with Larry Green after Monday's ceremony.
Chip Ellis Gov. Joe Manchin talks to mourners at Monday's ceremony outside the state Capitol.

For updates, check our Coal Tattoo blog :  

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state regulators on Monday began planning what they expect will be a long and complex investigation of last week's explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Some important details were still being worked out, such as what parts of the investigation would be conducted through some sort of public hearing format, and how two state bodies, one federal agency and the U.S. Congress would coordinate their probes.

Gov. Joe Manchin said Monday he has staff and attorneys working on proposed legislation concerning mine ventilation, the control of explosive methane and coal dust underground, and regulation of electrical equipment.

"Some of these laws haven't changed since the 1920s," Manchin said in an interview with the Gazette. "Mining has changed a lot since the 1920s."

Monday marked a week since the massive explosion rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine in what turned into the largest U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

Manchin commemorated the disaster with a wreath-laying ceremony at the state Capitol on Monday and urged residents to observe a moment of silence for the fallen miners.

"You can't stop tragedies. That's why they're called tragedies," said Philip Cash, a relative of fallen miner Michael Elswick. "And not to put the blame on anybody, but there are policies and procedures in place to keep this from happening."

Meanwhile Monday, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators huddled at the agency's training facility outside Beckley, and crews hoped to remove the final nine bodies from deep inside the mine by the end of the evening.

The state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training was planning an investigation, and the separate Board of Coal Mine Safety and Health scheduled a meeting Tuesday to consider its role in looking into the disaster.

Also, Manchin has said he planned to bring in longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer to either consult with him or to conduct some sort of independent study that would likely include public hearings later this year.

President Barack Obama has ordered Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main to give him a preliminary report this week on the cause of the disaster.

"Let me be clear: We will thoroughly examine anything and everything that could have any bearing on what happened," Solis said in an e-mail response to Gazette questions. "We will do our best to keep the public informed of the investigation's progress, which will last as long as it takes to get all the facts."

Speaking at Monday's ceremony at the miner statue on the state Capitol grounds, Solis said, "I will do everything in my power to make sure that we prevent these kinds of tragedies."

Mine safety experts have said the explosion probably involved a spark igniting a buildup of methane gas, but was almost certainly made far worse by coal dust accumulations. The experts cited the horrendous damage described by rescuers who had been underground, and the mine's history of methane and dust control violations.

Last year, MSHA officials overseeing the Upper Big Branch Mine had started two "special investigations," a type of review that often leads to the opening of a criminal investigation. No details of those investigations, or their outcome, have been made public.

But on Monday, U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller release a prepared statement saying that his office "is ready, willing and able to receive any information and/or investigative reports regarding the explosion."

"If the investigation undertaken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration reveals that criminal violations have occurred, we will work vigorously with investigators to pursue those offenses to the fullest extent of the law," Miller said.

At a meeting this afternoon, the state's mine safety board will discuss getting involved and perhaps conducting its own investigation. The board, made up of gubernatorial appointees from the industry and the United Mine Workers, has authority for such investigations, but has seldom ever conducted them. And in recent months, the board has been bickering behind the scenes with the state's mine safety office over which agency has authority to write West Virginia's mine safety rules.

Also, congressional leaders have said that they would hold their own hearings to examine the cause of the disaster.

"I know all of us in West Virginia are anxiously awaiting more information about what happened and why -- so we can begin finding the necessary solutions," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "We owe it to the memories of the miners and their families to do all we can to make sure something like this never happens again."

In an interview after the wreath-laying ceremony, Manchin said he wasn't concerned that the federal government would get involved in changing mine safety laws and overreact -- a fear expressed by some industry officials.

"I'm not worried about what they do," Manchin said. "I know we can move quickly."

Manchin said that after the Sago Mine disaster, it was assumed that everything was in place to save miners should an accident occur. But an explosion of this magnitude makes it impossible for the miners to get to emergency breathing devices or take refuge in an underground shelter.

"We've got to prevent it," he said. "The only way to save the miners is to prevent the explosions from happening."

Still, Manchin has been at odds with the Obama administration over regulation of mountaintop removal and of greenhouse gas emissions from coal, and had told industry officials he favors working with companies over taking tough enforcement action.

For example, Manchin described this philosophy during a speech two years ago to the West Virginia Coal Association's annual meeting. The governor said inspectors should tell mine operations, "Hey John, you've got a problem here, now before I write you up with a violation, here's what I think you ought to do to fix it.

"Let's get together, get our people together," the governor said at the time. "I'll come back in a week or a month or whatever the rotation time would be. Then if you've made those changes, tried to make the changes, we're working in the right direction. Rather than going out with a ball bat and a cease and desist order and fines, I'd rather you spend the money to fix what's wrong, try to make it safer, than give the money to government. I guarantee you we won't fix it."

@tag:Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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