CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As they wrap up their probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, federal regulators face unanswered questions regarding what Massey Energy board members were told about persistent safety problems at the mine -- and whether serious explosion hazards were corrected.
In late October, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials explored the issues in a secret interview with a former MSHA official who conducted safety audits for Massey in the months before the April 5, 2010, disaster.
Joe Pavlovich, a longtime MSHA inspector and supervisor, warned Massey officials at least three times in the year before the disaster that Upper Big Branch wasn't properly cleaning up accumulations of explosive coal dust.
But some reports to Massey board members who served on a special safety committee appear to have downplayed those warnings, according to court documents and other records obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
The records also indicate that investigators have been given conflicting accounts of whether hazards identified by Pavlovich were ever fixed.
During a meeting Nov. 9, 2009, at The Greenbrier, Massey vice president for safety Elizabeth Chamberlin assured board members that Pavlovich's audits showed safety conditions and practices at Massey mines were improving.
Pavlovich's audits "were positive and compliance was generally good," Chamberlin said, according to minutes of the meeting.
The next day, Nov. 10, Pavlovich made a repeat visit to Upper Big Branch. He'd been there twice before, in April and October, and found poor rock-dusting practices each time.
"The entire longwall section belt needs to be rock dusted," Pavlovich said in a report on the Nov. 10 inspection. That was the last time Pavlovich ever inspected Upper Big Branch.
At their February 2010 meeting, Massey board members were given an "executive summary" of safety audits Pavlovich conducted from September through December 2009.
That summary, dated Jan. 10, 2010, ranked Upper Big Branch as below average for controlling combustible materials on mining sections.
But a chart in the seven-page report left blank a ranking for controlling combustibles in other areas of the mine, such as the long tunnels between active mining areas and the surface. The executive summary made no specific mention of the findings of Pavlovich's Nov. 10, 2009, Upper Big Branch audit.
The report painted the situation at Upper Big Branch as being well under control, saying mine managers "have systems or plans in place to effect changes and improvements in compliance levels."
At 3:02 p.m. on April 5, 2010, the mine blew up. Twenty-nine workers died, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Federal regulators, an independent investigation by longtime safety advocate Davitt McAteer, and a probe by the United Mine Workers have all concluded that Massey's failure to properly rock-dust the mine allowed explosive coal dust to build up underground, turning a small methane ignition into a huge and deadly blast.
Even as their investigation wound down, some MSHA officials began quietly asking questions about what Massey's board knew about conditions at the mine -- about what board members were told, who gave them that information and if the reports were accurate.
Some details about Pavlovich's audits were made public six months ago in court documents, including lawsuit records that were unsealed by a legal action filed by the Gazette and National Public Radio. More information about the audits, and the board's knowledge of them, came out in Pavlovich's previously confidential testimony to investigators, a transcript of which was obtained by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
But MSHA officials interviewed Pavlovich only late last month, and they've talked to no other witnesses since then. It's not clear if agency investigators have gotten answers about the board's involvement or if the agency will continue to probe those issues.
MSHA has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday to make public the report of its Upper Big Branch investigation. Last week, agency officials refused to answer questions about its review of Pavlovich's audits. Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for MSHA, said her agency would not answer questions about its Upper Big Branch probe until Tuesday's press conference.
Investigators from the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training turned down an MSHA invitation to attend the Pavlovich interview. MSHA did not invite anyone from the McAteer independent team to take part.
Asked about the Pavlovich audits and how Massey followed up on them, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said last week, "Any information of that nature that would come to light would be of interest to us.
"We're not limiting the focus of our investigation at all," Goodwin said in an interview.
Goodwin said his office's criminal probe will continue -- and perhaps even intensify -- following Tuesday's release of the MSHA report.
"We are not slowing down at all," Goodwin said. "If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear."
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June 2011, did not respond last week to a request for comment about the status of its corporate review of the mine disaster.
At least 19 top Massey officials asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from government investigators about Upper Big Branch. Chamberlin is among those who refused to testify. Last week, through her lawyer, Chamberlin declined a request for an interview.
'Additional care must be taken'
In January 2007, Massey had lured Elizabeth Chamberlin away from CONSOL Energy, a unionized company widely credited with a strong safety record. A mining engineer and lawyer, Chamberlin worked for CONSOL from 1993 to 2007 and was chairwoman of the National Mining Association's safety committee.
At Massey, Chamberlin was among those charged with implementing a lawsuit settlement that called for tougher oversight of Massey's safety and environmental practices. Under the settlement, Chamberlin was supposed to report to a new panel of Massey board members called the Safety, Environmental and Public Policy Committee. But court records indicate she ended up reporting to Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Chamberlin contacted Pavlovich, a 25-year MSHA veteran, to perform some safety audits for Massey. Pavlovich, who worked on McAteer's independent investigations of the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire, was retired from MSHA and working as a mine safety consultant.
During his Oct. 18 interview with Upper Big Branch investigators, Pavlovich explained that he provided audit results to Chamberlin and to Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel.
From April 2009 through June 2009, Pavlovich visited 15 of Massey's underground mines, seven surface mines, four preparation plants, and five highwall miner operations.
Among other things, he found that, "Rock dusting, especially rock-dusting the roof of several areas, was observed as not being in compliance."
Both methane and coal dust are explosive and are created during the process of mining coal underground. Methane ignitions often can be smaller and less damaging, whereas a coal-dust explosion can rip through huge swaths of underground workings in an instant.
Under federal law, mine operators must spread crushed limestone, called "rock dust" across walls and other surfaces in underground tunnels to keep coal dust from igniting. The law requires operators to regularly "rock dust" to maintain the level of "incombustible" dust underground at a safe level. Some of this work is still done by hand, but the industry has also mechanized it with various types of bulk rock-dusting equipment.
At Massey's mines, Pavlovich found both good and bad rock-dusting practices.
"Sling dusters are provided at all working sections observed, but are not always being used regularly, leaving areas behind the sections not well rock dusted," his report said. "Trickle dusters located at outby belt drives were being used effectively, and their operation and use is to be commended.
"Bulk dusters on track entries are provided, but at some mines tanks to fill the dusters are not available," he wrote. "In general, cleanup of coal is good and rock dusting is fairly adequate, but additional care must be taken to ensure all areas of sections are rock-dusted using the available sling dusters, and that all available cleanup and rock dusting equipment is utilized."