Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, said that he focuses not on the monetary penalties, but on finding out what happened and coming up with ways to prevent another disaster.
"I feel uncomfortable standing up in front of the families talking about the money, because money doesn't bring anybody back," Stricklin told reporters in an afternoon press conference. "But this is what we're mandated by law to do and we did."
Main and Stricklin briefed reporters on their investigation findings during a mid-afternoon press conference held at MSHA's training academy outside Beckley, where agency investigators have been based for months and conducted most of the closed-door witness interviews used as key evidence in the probe.
Main's boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, attended an earlier MSHA briefing for families of the disaster victims. Solis spoke briefly at the agency's press conference, but left without taking questions from reporters.
The MSHA report largely mirrors previously released findings by a team led by independent investigator Davitt McAteer and a report from United Mine Workers safety experts. And in some ways, the formal MSHA report is just elaborating on the agency's previous public statements about its preliminary findings, outlined in detail at a public briefing in late June.
All three investigations agree that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion because of Massey's poor safety practices. The ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone. The spark grew out of control because water sprays meant to control it weren't working, and the blast erupted into a huge explosion when it hit large amounts of coal dust Massey had not cleaned from underground tunnels.
MSHA investigators also focused their report on a wealth of evidence that Massey covered up safety conditions at Upper Big Branch, by keeping hazards out of official record, warning workers underground of impending inspections, and intimidating miners to keep them from reporting safety concerns to the government.
But MSHA investigators offered a somewhat different conclusion as to the source of the methane involved in the initial ignition.
The McAteer team said the methane came from the mined-out "gob" area behind the longwall machine, while MSHA concluded it came from a gas reservoir located along geological faults that were the likely source of methane in previous incidents at the mine in 1997, 2003 and 2004.
MSHA investigators believe small amounts of methane migrated from the mine floor and onto the longwall cutting tool, or shearer, from the longwall's roof supports, or shields. Agency officials noted Massey did not follow up on MSHA recommendations for dealing with methane leaks from the mine floor, but MSHA has also been unable to explain its own failure to ensure the company acted.
MSHA investigators believe that Massey did not follow its agency-approved ventilation and roof control plans, short-circuiting fresh-air flow deep in the mine, contributing to the methane buildup and ignition.
Tuesday's briefings were scheduled on the 104th anniversary of Monongah, the worst coal-mining disaster in U.S. history, but it's not clear if MSHA officials were looking for any symbolism when they did so.
Main said that despite the wide-ranging and deadly safety problems his investigators found at Upper Big Branch, he would not compare conditions there to those at Monongah.
"The findings of our investigation found that the practices and conditions at this mine were what led to the deaths of these 29 miners," Main said. "If you go back to the early 20th Century, we had a lot more safety problems."
That said, Main added, "This was a coal-dust explosion that shouldn't have happened."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.