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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.