Coal Tattoo

Various media outlets are reporting today what is hardly surprising news: Federal officials are conducting a criminal investigation in the wake of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

The Associated Press is reporting:

A federal law enforcement official says the FBI has interviewed nearly two dozen current and former employees of Massey Energy in a criminal probe of the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men.

The official says in the interviews over recent days the FBI has been looking for any evidence that the company engaged in criminal negligence.

Reuters reports:

The FBI is probing the company and the circumstances surrounding the explosion, including for potential negligence, the officials said, declining further identification.

National Public Radio, meanwhile, reported:

Sources familiar with the investigation say the FBI is looking into possible bribery of officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that inspects and regulates mining. The sources say FBI agents are also exploring potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.

Interestingly, the Reuters story added this in response to the NPR report:

FBI and Justice Department officials declined to comment. National Public Radio reported that the agency that regulates the industry, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, was also under investigation related to potential bribery, but one U.S. official denied that report.

UPDATED: My sources are also discounting the part of the NPR story concerning a bribery investigation. I’m told that just isn’t true.

UPDATED: NPR is quoting a Department of Justice spokeswoman saying there is no bribery investigation, but NPR is standing by its story.

U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller has consistently declined to comment on the possible existence of any criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Justice Department officials in Washington have also declined comment. But Miller did issue a statement on April 12 that said his office was “ready, willing and able” to receive any information about possible criminal wrongdoing related to the mine or the disaster.

A couple of things to keep in mind … aside from the fact that media outlets (including the Gazette) are still scrambling for “scoops” about mine safety and the Massey disaster …

First, there is evidence to suggest that a criminal investigation was at least being actively considered of activities at the Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.

Second, remember that President Obama on April 15 had instructed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis “to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.”

Meanwhile, Massey issued a statement about what it called “unsubstantiated rumors” of a criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster:

Massey has no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing.

It is not uncommon that an accident of the size and scope of UBB would lead to a comprehensive investigation by relevant law enforcement agencies.

We are cooperating with all agencies that are investigating the tragedy at UBB. Massey does not and will not tolerate any improper or illegal conduct and will respond aggressively as circumstances warrant.

Oddly, though, this quote from Massey — included in the Reuters’ story — appeared to confirm the existence of a criminal probe:

“We are aware that investigators are interviewing witnesses, but are not aware of the nature of their investigation,” the company said in a statement. “We intend to cooperate in all phases of the accident investigation.”

It’s worth also noting that Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and paid a $2.5 million criminal fine for safety violations that led to the deaths of 2 miners in the January 2006 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Of course, the widows of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield were terribly unhappy with the decision by federal prosecutors not to try to take this case up the corporate ladder.

And in July 2007, another Massey subsidiary called White Buck Coal Co. was fined $50,000 after pleading guilty to a criminal charge that it did not do required safety checks at a mine in Nicholas County. And in 2003, two other Massey subsidiaries, Omar Mining and Independence Coal, pleaded guilty to criminal Clean Water Act violations.