Foremen Targets in WV Mine Disaster

Friday, February 24, 2012 @ 05:02 PM gHale

West Virginia mine safety officials issued 253 violations in their investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster and targeted two foremen, saying their failures may have exacerbated the explosion that killed 29 men.

The violations are in a report released Thursday by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

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The report comes the day after federal prosecutors charged the mine’s former superintendent with fraud and signaled they are going after other Massey employees, likely higher up the management ladder. The report was the fourth and final report on the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in four decades at Massey Energy’s mine near Montcoal.

The state’s conclusions about the cause of the explosion largely mirror those of previous reports: The machine cutting through sandstone to reach the coal created the heat or spark that methane needed to ignite. Broken water sprayers then failed to stop the fireball from turning into a much more powerful series of explosions fueled by coal dust.

The state’s report said foremen Ricky J. Foster and Terry W. Moore repeatedly failed to clean conveyor belts and apply rock dust to certain areas in the mine from December 2009 until the explosion on April 5, 2010. Mine operators use pulverized limestone to cover and neutralize highly explosive coal dust.

Investigators said they learned about rock-dusting practices at Upper Big Branch and the failure to treat one side of the longwall mining machine during the eight months it operated. They mined 5,400 feet of the 6,700-foot-long coal panel between September 2009 and April 2010 “without any record of rock dust being applied,” the report said.

Both foremen signed safety inspection logs to indicate they were aware of coal dust accumulation and the need for rock dusting, the report said, but there is no record suggesting either fixed the problems. The log books also had “lack of clarity and full disclosure” about the extent of the hazards underground.

“Extreme brevity of information was used on a daily basis,” when more detail could have helped workers on subsequent shifts protect themselves, the report said.

State law proposes only $250 fines for individual violations, but the agency could seek suspension or revocation of the foremen’s licenses and certifications.

“Individuals involved in the day-to-day decision making at the mine must be held accountable regardless of their title,” the report said. “The mine foreman is the highest-ranking official that current state law addresses.”

Neither Foster nor Moore cooperated with investigations by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers. They are among 18 Massey executives and mine managers who invoked their right to avoid self-incrimination and refused to testify.

The superintendent charged Wednesday did the same.

Gary May, 43, faces charges of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, disabling a methane monitor on a mining machine and falsifying safety records. Prosecutors said May also manipulated the mine’s ventilation system during inspections to fool safety officials about air flow.

He could get up to five years in prison if convicted.

May is the highest-ranking company official charged so far.

The other, former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, faces sentencing next week for lying to investigators and trying to destroy documents. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is urging a federal judge to make an example of Stover by giving him the maximum — 25 years in prison.

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