The first major investigative report (PDF) on the coal mine disaster in West Virginia last year that killed 29 miners was released today. The 122-page report, a year in the making and authored by a team of independent experts appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, drops the hammer on Massey Energy, which operated the Upper Big Branch mine and was headed by notoriously thuggish coal baron Don Blankenship. “Massey exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety” at the mine, the report concludes.
The report charges Massey with a long list of failures, including having a faulty ventilation plan, which allowed explosive gases to build up in the mine, and – incredibly – faking safety examinations and disabling instruments to monitor methane gas in the mine. The report slams Massey for encouraging a “culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm.” According to Ken Ward Jr., the Charleston Gazette’s ace coal industry reporter, when Davitt McAteer, the former mine safety official who headed up the investigation, met with the Upper Big Branch families to explain the conclusions of his report, he told them, point-blank, that Massey “ran this mine in a profoundly reckless manner.”
The report also is critical of federal regulators who oversaw the mine. “The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the [federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA] failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners,” the panel’s report says. In an interview with NPR, assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main tried to shift attention to the report’s focus on Massey Energy but acknowledged, “we could have done more. The report identifies areas that we’re taking a hard look at. We’ve already taken some self-examination, as well.”
MSHA plans to release preliminary findings of its own investigation next month, and a federal criminal investigation continues. Criminal charges have been filed against two lower-level Massey Energy managers so far.
The big question now: will Blankenship himself end up behind bars?