"There should be an outside, independent examination of MSHA's actions when you have a disaster," Oppegard said Friday. "The current system is fraught with conflicts of interest."
The Upper Big Branch explosion was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. Investigators believe it involved an ignition of methane gas and was probably made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust.
Along with civil investigations by MSHA, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, Congress and special investigator Davitt McAteer, the Upper Big Branch explosion is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
Already, the Obama administration, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main have been under fire for refusing to conduct the Upper Big Branch investigation through a public hearing. In closed-door interviews, MSHA officials have been questioning not only Massey workers and company officials, but also some of the agency's own inspectors, about what happened at the mine.
In the last week, investigators have been closely examining the MSHA reports about the 2003 and 2004 methane outbursts at Upper Big Branch and asking other agency officials for documents that would explain what actions were taken following the incidents.
MSHA officials have refused to discuss the incidents and have declined comment on the agency reports about them.
In one incident, on Feb. 18, 2004, workers deep inside Upper Big Branch heard a "big thump," just before the mine floor opened up, creating a 240-foot-long fracture that sent methane gas pouring into the mine.
Massey reported that other incident, on July 3, 2003, as a "methane inundation" of Upper Big Branch caused by an "extreme bump" and heaving of the mine floor.
"Mine personnel described the July 2003 outburst as a very high pressure event, comparable to the sound of a jet engine," according to an internal MSHA report.
Federal regulators concluded after the two incidents that a reservoir of natural gas below the Upper Big Branch Mine might easily be released into the active mining operation. They recommended a series of steps to try to prevent such incidents, or at least to control them, hopefully preventing an explosion or fire.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.