CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Labor Department officials blocked an independent state team investigating the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster from digging into questions about the federal government's response to earlier incidents where methane leaked from the Raleigh County operation's mine floor, newly disclosed records show.
Agency lawyer Derek Baxter, a member of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's disaster investigation team, said the questions were inappropriate and tried to keep his objections to them from appearing in the public record of MSHA's probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
"I want to go off the record right now," Baxter said when pressed to explain why questions from a member of the independent investigation team about MSHA's actions were improper.
Details of Baxter's actions surfaced this week in investigative interview transcripts made public by MSHA after the release of the agency's long-awaited report on the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 workers.
Investigations by MSHA, the independent team led by Davitt McAteer, and the United Mine Workers have agreed that serious, pervasive and widespread violations of basic safety standards by Massey were the root causes of the Upper Big Branch disaster.
But the MSHA report, released Tuesday, also concluded that methane that ignited the horrific blast likely leaked from the mine floor through exactly the sort of mechanism as three earlier methane incidents at Upper Big Branch in 1997, 2003 and 2004.
MSHA had recommended steps to avoid such incidents, but Massey never implemented them -- and MSHA has admitted it didn't follow up to ensure the company acted.
McAteer, a former MSHA chief who led the independent team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, said Thursday that it was "unfortunate" that Baxter intervened to stop questions raised by Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor and member of the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel.
"The outcome of the report that was released two days ago by MSHA suggests these were very pertinent questions and a very important line of questioning," McAteer said in an interview. "It's truly unfortunate that the agency for whatever reason tried to move away from this line of questioning."
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, said Thursday that an agency "internal review" team looking into MSHA's actions at Upper Big Branch is likely to report that his agency should have done more to follow up on the earlier methane incidents and any Massey remedial actions.
"It appears to me that we didn't address it, but I'm going to wait until they tell me that in writing," Stricklin said in an interview.
Stricklin also emphasized that a multitude of Massey violations -- improper safety examinations, worn-out mining machine bits, missing water sprays, inadequate roof support and a pattern of poor rock-dusting -- all contributed to the disaster.
"A hell of a lot of stuff has to go wrong for you to have an explosion," Stricklin said.
In a statement issued Thursday, House Labor Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said, "The families of the Upper Big Branch miners deserve the whole story of what went wrong. That is why I am interested in the findings of MSHA's internal audit, which should help answer whether enforcement lapses played a role in this devastating disaster.
"If MSHA failed to act on critical information that may have improved the safety of those miners, the people of West Virginia deserve to know why," Kline said in a statement.
MSHA was conducting another in its series of closed-door interviews with witnesses in the Upper Big Branch case -- this one on June 22, 2010, with longtime MSHA employee Stephen Gigliotti -- when Baxter and McGinley clashed several times.