Labor Secretary Hilda Solis promised a series of public meetings about the disaster, but then backed off that idea when U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the public events could jeopardize his ongoing criminal probe.
During a U.S. Senate hearing six weeks after the disaster, the UMW's Roberts predicted that "investigations of the Upper Big Branch tragedy will show that safe mining practices were not followed at that operation and miners were being exposed to senseless dangers."
So far, a report by special investigator Davitt McAteer and preliminary findings from MSHA agreed that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that turned into a massive coal-dust blast because of Massey's poor safety practices.
Investigators believe the ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer. They also believe that a coal-dust buildup underground sent what could have been a minor ignition into an explosion that rocketed in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths.
The McAteer team concluded the disaster was caused by Massey's failure to follow basic safety standards, and by a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of worker safety. McAteer and his team cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer.
The McAteer report also criticized the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training and said the fact that 29 miners died in a mine explosion was proof positive that MSHA "failed its duty as a watchdog for coal miners."
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June, has said it is still reviewing the disaster.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.