The owner of the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men last year kept two sets of books on safety conditions — an accurate one for itself and a sanitized one for the government, federal regulators said Wednesday.
Managers at Massey Energy pressured workers at the Upper Big Branch mine to omit safety problems from the official set of reports, said Mine Safety and Health Administration official Kevin Stricklin. Workers told investigators that the company wanted to avoid scrutiny from inspectors and keep coal production running smoothly.
Massey was bought by rival Alpha Natural Resources earlier this month, and the new owner said it is looking into the allegations.
Even before the April 5, 2010, tragedy that was the nation's deadliest coalfield disaster in four decides, Massey had a poor safety record and a reputation for putting coal profits first. The mine was cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half before the blast.
In its previous briefings, MSHA blamed the explosion on naturally occurring methane gas and coal dust. It said poorly maintained cutting machinery sparked the blast and a malfunctioning water sprayer allowed a flare-up to become an inferno.
"Managers were aware that chronic hazardous conditions were not recorded," Stricklin said. Testimony from some of the 266 people MSHA interviewed "indicated that management pressured examiners to not record hazards" at Upper Big Branch.
MSHA has referred the matter to federal prosecutors, who had no comment on the findings Wednesday.
The disaster is already under criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
So far, one Massey employee has been indicted. Security chief Hughie Stover was charged with lying to the FBI and MSHA and obstructing justice by ordering thousands of pages of documents thrown out.
Eighteen former Massey officials have refused to testify in the investigation, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That includes chief executive Don Blankenship, a famously combative figure who has all but vanished since retiring in December. He did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday.
The United Mine Workers union, which is representing some miners in the investigation even though Upper Big Branch was a non-union operation, said the discovery of two sets of books "demonstrates the utter contempt for mine safety and health laws that was pervasive throughout the entire management structure at Massey Energy."
"It confirms that management knew there were serious problems at the mine, yet chose to hide them from safety officials and the miners themselves," said union President Cecil Roberts. "That's a crime, and punishment for those responsible for this cannot be too severe."
Stricklin said top managers knew exactly what was being recorded because they were required to sign the safety inspection books that miners used to document working conditions.
He showed side-by-side comparisons of records that supposedly documented the same shifts on three different dates in the month before the accident.
In each case, the official book that inspectors would have seen showed few, if any, hazards, while the internal reports indicated problems with faulty machinery, explosive methane gas and bad roof conditions.
"What they're required to do is list all the hazards in the official book," Stricklin said. "This is the book that not only MSHA looks at ... but it should be the book that miners and other people who are going into the mine should look at so they would be aware of any conditions in the mine before they go in."
Stricklin said investigators were surprised that Massey kept two sets of books — and that the company turned them over voluntarily.
Mines have been caught keeping double books before, including once at another mine where an explosion happened. Thirteen men died at the mine in Brookwood, Ala., in 2001. No criminal charges were filed in that case.
Bobbie Pauley, the only woman who worked underground at Upper Big Branch, said she was not surprised by the double set of books.
"You put in an inspection report what you wanted the inspectors to see," said Pauley, who lost her fiance in the blast. "If they see a potential problem recorded in a book, then they're going to come back and investigate it time after time after time. Well, no coal operator wants to be pounded by MSHA every day."
Alpha Natural Resources spokesman Ted Pile said the company was hearing about the faked reports for the first time.
"We don't have enough information at this point to ascertain if the claim of separate books is valid or not," Pile wrote in an email, "but obviously we'll look at this as well as all the information that's available to us as we conduct our own review."
MSHA has drafted its final report on the disaster but told victims' families it probably won't be delivered until October, in part because the agency needs more time to complete a list of violations that contributed to the disaster.
The mine had a well-documented history of ventilation problems, and Stricklin said Wednesday that workers seemed to be deviating from federally approved plans and using "a trial-and-error method" to clear gases away. He also said the unfiltered river water Massey was using for its sprayer could have clogged the nozzles.
Massey has argued that the explosion was caused by a huge and unexpected rush of natural gas from a crack in the mine floor, but Stricklin dismissed that theory.
"We're sure we're right," he said. "This is our conclusion. It's not going to change."
An independent investigation commissioned by former Gov. Joe Manchin reached similar conclusions last month. That report accused Massey of allowing highly explosive coal dust and methane gas to accumulate.
"No one should have been injured," Stricklin said, "and definitely no one should have died."