BEAVER, W.Va. -- Massey Energy covered up safety hazards at its Upper Big Branch Mine by pressuring mine foremen and safety examiners not to record methane spikes and inoperable explosion-prevention equipment in official records examined by government inspectors, federal authorities said Wednesday.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said Massey management recorded such hazards in its internal production reports, but routinely omitted safety problems from mine safety reports required by federal law.
MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary was essentially keeping "two sets of books" -- a move that Stricklin said could eventually prompt criminal charges for falsifying safety records, a felony.
"If a coal mine wants to keep two sets of books, that's their business," Stricklin said during a much-anticipated MSHA briefing at the national mine safety academy outside Beckley.
"They can keep five sets of books if they want," Stricklin said. "But they're required to record the hazards in the official set of books."
Using a computer slideshow, Stricklin cited three examples of production records that indicated safety problems had slowed down coal operations on particular days, and compared them to official mine examination reports that indicated mine foremen had found no hazards.
"I think that makes it obvious that they [Massey officials] were trying to hide something," said Shirley Whitt, whose brother, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch. "Why else would you do that?"
The revelation about record books was the largest new disclosure made by Stricklin in an hour-long briefing Wednesday morning. On Tuesday night, MSHA officials met privately with families of the 29 miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.
MSHA officials echoed their previous conclusions -- and those of special investigator Davitt McAteer -- that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that "transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion" because of Massey's poor safety practices. The ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer, MSHA officials said.
"This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator," MSHA said in a 66-page slide show summarizing the agency's findings to date.
As they have before, MSHA officials flatly rejected arguments by former Massey CEO Don Blankenship and former company board chairman Bobby Inman that the deaths were the result of a "natural disaster" involving an uncontrollable inundation of massive amounts of natural gas into the mine.
MSHA investigators believe that they've found clear evidence that a coal-dust buildup underground sent the explosion rocketing in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths. And, government officials say their tests of methane detectors in use at the time of the blast show no signs of the massive quantities of methane Massey officials argue were at work.