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A year later, mine memorials planned, but no action

Links at top: Read more: http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Memorial services are planned today from the Coal River Valley to the state Capitol to mark the one-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010, an explosion ripped through the Massey Energy operation near Montcoal in Raleigh County.

Twenty-nine miners died, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster since 38 miners were killed on Dec. 30, 1970, at Finley Coal Co.'s No. 15 and No. 16 mines in Leslie County, Ky.

Multiple investigations -- including a broad-ranging criminal probe -- continue, while state lawmakers, Congress and other political leaders have declined to pass new safety protections for the nation's miners.

Nationwide, a total of 48 coal miners died on the job last year, the most in any year since 1992. In West Virginia, last year's 35 coal-mining deaths were the most since 1979.

"When the people's representatives are more concerned about fattening corporate profit margins than they are about keeping workers alive, they have crossed a dangerous line and we must hold them accountable," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union.

To remember the miners, one ceremony is planned for 3 p.m. at the First Christian Church in Beckley, and a private memorial service for family members, political leaders and guests is set for 6 p.m. at Whitesville Elementary School. The 6 p.m. event will be broadcast on the Internet by the West Virginia University School of Journalism's Faces of the Mine project at http://www.facesofthemine.com/category/faces-of-the-mine/. A candlelight vigil is to follow.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, has asked all West Virginians to observe a moment of silence starting at 3:01 p.m. Investigators believe the explosion occurred sometime between 3:01 and 30 seconds and 3:02 and 30 seconds. Tomblin has also asked all churches across the state to ring their bells 29 times starting at 3:01 p.m. He is also scheduled to lay a wreath at the coal miner statue at the Capitol at 10 a.m.

As then-Gov. Joe Manchin did following the mine explosion, Tomblin has declined to take up a package of mine safety reform measures recommended by independent investigator Davitt McAteer. In Washington, Republicans have managed so far to defeat mine safety legislation proposed by Democrats and backed by the Obama administration.

On Thursday and Friday, McAteer and Wheeling Jesuit University will host the university's fourth annual Mining Health and Safety Symposium. The event at the Charleston Civic Center will feature a panel discussion by members of various government investigation teams looking into Upper Big Branch.

Investigators believe the explosion involved the ignition of a small amount of methane gas that was propelled into a huge blast by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust in the Upper Big Branch Mine.

So far, two people have been charged in the criminal probe of the disaster.

A one-time Massey worker has agreed to plead guilty after he was charged with faking his credentials when he performed required mine safety tests at the mine for nearly two years between January 2008 and August 2009. That man, Thomas Harrah of Seth, is scheduled for a plea hearing on April 13 in federal court in Beckley.

A Massey security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, has pleaded innocent to charges that he tried to destroy evidence and lied to investigators about the company's policy regarding warning underground workers about federal inspections. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger agreed to delay Stover's trial from April 25 to July 18. Stover had asked for a delay until October or November.

Also Monday, Richmond, Va.-based Massey announced it would hold a moment of silence and conduct a "safety stand down" at all of its underground mines to mark the disaster anniversary.

"As the one-year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion approaches, Massey Energy continues to extend our sincere condolences and heartfelt sympathies to those families and communities who lost loved ones in this tragic accident," Massey said in a statement. "The company remains fully committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation that seeks to identify the primary causes of the explosion and provide answers to the UBB families and the communities we serve in Central Appalachia."

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


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