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MSHA Finishes Upper Big Branch Investigation, Blames Massey Safety Lapses

The federal government has finished its investigation into last year’s fatal explosionat a West Virginia coal mine. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has imposed record penalties and is standing behind previous statements that the accident was preventable.As soon as one day after the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, MSHA’s Kevin Stricklin told reporters that the deaths of the 29 miners killed could have been prevented. Stricklin echoed the sentiment in the agency’s presentation of its 20-month investigation into the disaster.“Basically, we stand by the first statement we made on April the fifth that 29 miners’ deaths were preventable,” he said. “We still feel that way. Massey management engaged in practices and procedures that resulted in non-compliance with the Mine Act and regulations.”Stricklin says the explosion was caused by a combination of methane gas and flammable coal dust, but happened at the magnitude it did because of Massey Energy’s failure to take basic safety precautions. The report outlines violations including insufficient rock dusting (which helps neutralize the coal dust) and warning underground miners of imminent federal inspections.MSHA fined Alpha Natural Resources—which bought Massey earlier this year—more than $10 million for 374 violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine. The penalty is the largest in U.S. coal mine history, but Stricklin says he realizes that doesn’t make a difference to the families of the 29 miners killed.“I feel uncomfortable standing up in front of the families talking about how much money because money don’t bring anybody back,” he said. “There’s 29 fatalities—money doesn’t mean anything to them, as we talked to them today. There’s other things on their mind, but it’s part of the system that’s in place.”Alpha was also fined about $200 millionearlier today from the U.S. Attorney’s office to settle some civil and criminal claims related to the explosion. There is still an ongoing investigation into criminal misconduct at the mine.

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