| MSHA should be forced to conduct more-open investigations of major accidents, instead of interviewing witnesses behind closed doors as the agency has been doing for months on Upper Big Branch. McAteer noted that federal officials have held open public hearings -- broadcast on the Internet -- of the BP oil disaster, and said those proceedings have not interfered with an ongoing criminal investigation of that incident.
"We need to have full exposure to the public," McAteer said. "We in the mining community resist that. We need to have public hearings and public investigations. And yes, we need to have the media there, looking down our throats and saying, 'Have you done this right? Have you done that right?'"
| The industry should institute continuous monitoring of methane gas and begin more comprehensive and real-time sampling for coal dust, allowing operators and regulators to have more up-to-date information to react when problems first arise.
In an interview, McAteer said the unsafe accumulation of coal dust -- which stretched for miles in Upper Big Branch's tunnels -- was caused by the mine operator's failure to maintain safe conditions and by state and federal inspectors who allowed the problem to persist.
"It did not happen overnight," McAteer said.
He said his team also has discovered that changes in the mine's ventilation system were made in the weeks and days prior to the blast. He said his investigators are still trying to understand what changes were made, whether they all received proper approvals and what role those changes might have played in the explosion.
"We're looking at that question," McAteer said.
McAteer disputed a description made earlier this week by Massey board Chairman Bobby Inman, who told The Wall Street Journal the mine explosion was a "natural disaster."
"It's not our conclusion that it was a natural disaster, in my understanding of that term," McAteer said. "It was a disaster that was preventable, that had human causes."
Massey officials declined to have a representative speak on the panel, but company in-house lawyer Stephanie Ojeda and other Massey officials attended and took notes.
MSHA officials backed out of the session, blaming the potential of a federal-government shutdown by Congress. MSHA has scheduled a public briefing for June 29 to release more information about its investigation.
Bill Tucker, a leader of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, took part in the panel discussion, but declined to provide any details of his agency's findings to date.
"We're looking at everything," Tucker said. "We're trying to find out what happened."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.