McAteer discussed his independent review of Upper Big Branch Wednesday during a Capitol press conference, marking the first time any government investigators have briefed the media on their progress in determining the cause of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years. Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5 explosion, which experts believe likely involved an ignition of methane gas made much worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust in the Massey mine.
Manchin asked McAteer to conduct a review similar to those he performed after Sago and the January 2006 Aracoma Mine fire, with a focus on preventing future deaths and determining if existing laws are strong enough or weren't properly enforced.
McAteer contrasted those efforts to investigations by MSHA and state regulators, which aim to find out if specific violations by Massey caused the disaster. Federal prosecutors and FBI agents are also conducting a separate investigation of the disaster, looking for potential criminal wrongdoing involving Upper Big Branch citations that date back more than four years.
"Our whole philosophy is separate," McAteer said. "Our whole purpose is separate."
Already, he believes he's seen things at Upper Big Branch that confirm his findings after Sago and Aracoma that the mining industry hasn't moved as quickly to deploy mine safety technology improvement as it has mine production enhancements. He cited, for example, the fact that pre-shift safety records are still written by hand, rather than maintained in computer databases that can be more easily used to monitor mine conditions.
McAteer said his team is continuing to investigate what -- if any -- steps were taken by Massey and MSHA to prevent a recurrence of two "methane outbursts" from the mine floor at Upper Big Branch in 2003 and 2004.
In response to repeated questions on this point, McAteer said investigators have not yet interviewed all of the witnesses who would have information about the safety examinations conducted immediately prior to the work shift when the explosion occurred, and therefore could not say what those examinations revealed.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.