CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators investigating the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster have removed one member of an internal review team after learning he was involved in the agency's response to previous "methane outbursts" at the mine. Those outbursts are a current focus of the state and federal probe.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials are scrambling to figure out what preventative actions -- if any -- agency officials or Massey Energy mine managers took following the incidents in 2003 and 2004 at the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County.
Investigators are concerned that later gas outbursts, in which mining activity caused large holes in the mine floor to open up and release methane, could have been one possible source of explosive gases involved in the April 5 blast that killed 29 workers and injured two others.
Internal MSHA reports about the two methane outbursts were made public last week by The Charleston Gazette.
At the time of the previous incidents, longtime MSHA staffer Stephen Gigliotti was the agency's acting district manager in Southern West Virginia. Reports on the two incidents were directed to him, with recommendations from MSHA experts about what should be done to prevent a recurrence or at least minimize the potential dangers.
After the disaster, Gigliotti was initially made part of an MSHA team assigned to conduct an "internal review" of agency inspection and enforcement actions at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.
Last week, MSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder confirmed that Gigliotti had been removed from that assignment.
In an e-mail response to questions, Lawder said Gigliotti "was removed from the review team to avoid the potential for a conflict of interest since he was previously the acting district manager for district 4."
Gigliotti could not be reached for comment.
Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said the situation shows the need for changes in the way agency actions prior to major mining accidents are investigated.
In past mining disasters, MSHA has typically appointed officials from outside the district to both investigate the accident and to look into how well MSHA performed prior to the deaths. But Oppegard noted that it still amounts to the agency investigating itself, and that various connections about staff in small agency like MSHA are difficult to entirely avoid.