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CHARLESTON, W.Va. - An independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster has concluded that Massey Energy's failure to follow basic safety standards - and a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of protecting workers - led to the deaths of 29 miners in last April's massive explosion.
A report from a team directed by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer found that widespread violations, persistent intimidation of workers and constant battling with regulators "can only be accepted where the deviant has become normal."
"And evidence suggests that a great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch Mine," said the report by McAteer's team, formally known as the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel.
Federal and state mine safety regulators are also to blame, the McAteer report said, for not conducting adequate inspections or taking tougher enforcement actions.
"The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented," the report concluded.
During a closed-door meeting this morning in Beckley, McAteer and his team are briefing families of the miners who died and providing those families with copies of their report. A press conference is scheduled for early this afternoon.
Massey Energy officials have suggested the explosion was a "natural disaster" beyond the company's control, and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has said it was using all of the tools at its disposal to clean up problems at Upper Big Branch.
Reactions from Massey, MSHA, and various political leaders are expected later today after the report is made public and officials are given time to digest its contents.
A spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training this morning congratulated McAteer and his team for completing their report.
"We look forward to reviewing Mr. McAteer's report and evaluating his recommendations," said the spokeswoman, Leslie Fitzwater. "We applaud his efforts to make mining in West Virginia safer."
McAteer's team is the first to complete its investigation into the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years. Separate federal and state probes aren't expected to wrap up until late this year at the earliest. A federal criminal probe is also ongoing, so far having brought charges against only two low-level Massey employees.
The report, commissioned last year by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, repeats some evidence and confirms some theories already made public, in some instances citing stories published in the Gazette.
But the report also outlines previously undisclosed oversights by government inspectors and details testimony that indicates a key Massey foreman did not perform required mine safety tests the day of the explosion -- and that such behavior by mine management may have been widespread.
It also cites autopsy reports that indicate that nearly three-quarters of the Upper Big Branch victims had black lung disease. While unrelated to the disaster, the results are an "alarming finding," given the miners' ages and work histories, the McAteer team said.
The 122-page report reveals for the first time that the flow of fresh air in the underground mine was reversed the day of the explosion. Proper ventilation sweeps methane and coal dust out of the mine. Air going the wrong way could have helped set the stage for disaster.
Investigators also noted that pumps deep inside the mine had broken over Easter weekend, allowing water to accumulate and greatly reduce airflow.
McAteer's team believes the April 5, 2010, blast erupted when the longwall machine's shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, the team believes, ignited a pocket of methane that seeped onto the longwall face from the mined-out area, or gob, behind the mining machine.
Illegal levels of coal dust that had not been cleaned up provided fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels. Massey performed important "rock-dusting" only 16 percent of the time it was needed in the months leading up to the disaster, the report found.