Massey's Inman resumes claim Upper Big Branch blast was natural disaster
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two days after Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey Energy, the former chairman of Massey's board resumed promoting the contention that the deadly explosion a year ago at the Upper Big Branch Mine was a natural disaster.
The move by former Massey chairman Bobby Inman comes at a time when Inman and other Massey board members and top executives are under increasing legal and public pressure over potential personal liability for the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5, 2010, explosion.
On Friday, Inman distributed copies of a Massey report that criticizes government investigators who have blamed the mine disaster on Massey's poor safety practices and a corporate culture that put profits before protecting workers.
In a cover letter, Inman said the Massey report was completed several weeks ago, but he delayed releasing it at Alpha's request until after the buyout was approved by the shareholders of both companies.
"It would have been easy to just let it slide," wrote Inman, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and intelligence officer.
"The overwhelming reason for proceeding to release the report now on my own is a strong sense of responsibility for all those who mine coal," he wrote. "The report has the potential to secure long-term improvement in their safety as they go about their critical mission of producing the coal that powers so much of our country."
The 169-page Massey report repeats the company's theory that a huge and uncontrollable flood of natural gas inundated that Upper Big Branch Mine, fueling an explosion the company could not have foreseen or prevented. It argues that coal dust played no role in the disaster, that poor maintenance of a mining machine cutting tool was not a factor, and insists Massey's ventilation practices at the mine were not involved in the explosion.
"The evidence does not disclose any failure by [Massey subsidiary] Performance [Coal] that contributed to the explosion or to the number of fatalities, including in the areas of rock dusting, ventilation, or shearer maintenance," the report concludes.
Massey also harshly criticizes what is says is the lack of an independent investigation that would have properly examined the role that actions of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration could have played in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
However, the Massey document itself does not mention the independent investigation by a team led by longtime safety advocate Davitt McAteer.
In its report last month, the McAteer team concluded the disaster was caused by Massey's failure to follow basic safety standards, and by a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of worker safety. McAteer and his team cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer. The McAteer report rejects the notion that a huge methane inundation was to blame, instead finding that a small amount of methane seeped into the working section from the mined-out area behind the longwall machine.
The McAteer report also criticized the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training and said the fact that 29 miners died in a mine explosion was "prove positive" that MSHA "failed its duty as a watchdog for coal miners."
In his cover letter, Inman said Massey officials "have significant disagreements with" McAteer's report. Inman said that former Massey board member Stan Suboleski "who has great expertise in this area, will provide a critique of the McAteer report in the next week or two."
McAteer on Friday disputed one of the key arguments in Massey's report: That an increase in methane liberation from the mine in the hours after the explosion helped to prove that a large gas inundation fueled the blast. McAteer said that an increase in methane was simply what would be expected to be caused by and detected after a large mine explosion of any kind.
"Anybody in the mining business knows that in a post-explosion mine environment, you would expect to have this," McAteer said. "That has nothing to do with the liberation from an inundation underground."
Also undercutting the Massey report are documents, recently unsealed because of legal action by the Gazette and National Public Radio, which indicate Massey "undertook few of MSHA's recommendations" to avoid a repeat of methane accidents at Upper Big Branch in 2003 and 2004.
Those records were filed in court, originally under seal, as part of three different lawsuits -- two in West Virginia and one in Delaware -- in which Massey shareholder groups are seeking to recover financial damages directly from Massey board members for the mine disaster's costs.
Lawyers for the shareholder groups argued that Inman and other top Massey officials rushed to sell to Alpha in large part -- if not entirely -- to try to insulate themselves from any personal liability for the disaster. While courts in West Virginia and Delaware declined to block the merger on those grounds, the shareholder groups are continuing their suits.
In Kanawha Circuit Court, a new petition was filed earlier this week seeking to hold former Massey board members in contempt of a June 2008 court order mandating they do more to ensure Massey operated its mines safely.
"It's quite clear [Inman's] motive is to escape personal liability for the UBB explosion, and he's now going to be able to use this report to try to do that," said Badge Humphries, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Kanawha County case.
McAteer called on Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield to publicly explain whether his company supports the Massey report and Inman's views on what caused the mine disaster.
"And if they don't endorse the report, then the president of the company needs to come out and say they don't endorse the report, and distance his company from it," McAteer said.
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said his company "did not commission or authorize the release" of the report and "was not given the opportunity to review either this report or the letter before their public release.
"In Alpha's view, a view it had expressed to Massey prior to the consummation of their merger, it was not appropriate to release any report purporting to contain Massey's assessment of the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion before Alpha had an opportunity to fully understand and assess the situation," Pile said in a prepared statement. "Alpha will conduct its own review into the events at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine and intends to fully cooperate with pending government investigations."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.