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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mining bits on the longwall machine were worn out, exposing steel shafts that could easily spark when they hit a piece of rock embedded in the coal seam. Key water sprays were missing or inoperable, leaving miners without an important protection against methane ignitions.
Mine operators ignored repeated warnings from their own workers to spread more crushed stone, or rock dust, to prevent coal dust that had built up along miles of underground tunnels from providing fuel for an explosion.
Federal investigators on Wednesday outlined these allegations as the likely factors that combined to produce the huge explosion that killed 29 miners in April 5 at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials provided the most detailed media briefing to date on their investigation into the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
MSHA released a lengthy slide presentation outlining the agency's major evidence. They made public video of tests the agency said clearly showed major problems with the water spray system on the cutting tool, or shearer, on the Raleigh County mine's longwall mining machine.
"The investigation is still ongoing, and we have a large number of pieces of evidence to evaluate to provide a more clear picture of what happened," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA. "But you can see from some of the evidence that there are some problems here we clearly should be looking at."
MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin and Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith joined Main for a media briefing held the morning after government officials provided families of the fallen Upper Big Branch miners their first in-person briefing in four months.
Agency officials told families that a report would be issued within 60 to 90 days. They said witness interviews are finished, except for some people who will be asked to return for more questioning and for 18 people who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testimony.
MSHA officials also defended their agency when asked how conditions at Upper Big Branch could have deteriorated to the point that multiple safety systems aimed at preventing just such a disaster were in such bad shape that they failed to protect Massey's workers.
Stricklin noted that MSHA inspectors had written hundreds of violations and issued more serious mine closure orders at Upper Big Branch than at any other mine in the months prior to the explosion.
"Based on the numbers I've seen, I think my folks were enforcing the law here," Stricklin said.
The media briefing also was held just days after MSHA confirmed it had agreed to a request from federal prosecutors to delay any public hearings or the release of witness interview transcripts to avoid jeopardizing U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's ongoing criminal investigation of the disaster.
Smith, the agency's top lawyer, said she didn't ask Goodwin for examples of how releasing witness testimony of discussing the disaster in a public hearing would hamper his criminal probe. So far, no charges have been filed against anyone in connection with the explosion.
During Wednesday's briefing, MSHA provided the media and the public with essentially the same information released Tuesday night during a closed-door meeting with the disaster victims' families. But agency officials were more cautious in their media comments.