Coal Tattoo

While we’re waiting for tomorrow’s release of the report from Davitt McAteer’s independent investigation team on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, it might be a good time to revisit the questions that linger about that terrible explosion on April 5, 2010.  Here are some things worth looking for once the report is out, or at least things I’m hoping the McAteer team tried to address:

— Have investigators pinpointed the ignition source as being a spark from the longwall shearer, as U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials seem to have indicated?

— Where did the methane come from? Did explosive gases build up in the “gob” area behind the longwall machine, as some investigators have argued all along? Or is Massey right that the gas came from a huge crack in the mine floor?

— Regarding the mine floor cracks, what — if anything — did MSHA do to make sure that Massey took appropriate steps to avoid a repeat of large methane outbursts into the mine in 2003 and 2004?

— What about the dispute between Massey Energy and MSHA over ventilation plans for the Upper Big Branch Mine? Was Massey operating a mine with terribly poor ventilation and not doing enough to fix those problems? Or was MSHA at fault for forcing a ventilation plan on the company that Massey didn’t like and didn’t think was safe?

— Speaking of disputes, what about the arguments over the actions of Massey officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead after the explosion? Will the McAteer team give us some more information about what they were doing underground, and clear up questions raised by some of the families of the miners who died?

NPR’s Howard Berkes reported very early on about the criminal investigation at Upper Big Branch, and followed up with detailed accounts about Massey disabling methane monitors at the mine.  Will the McAteer team reveal any new evidence about such activities, or any details that hint at other criminal activity that may have played a role in poor safety conditions generally or the explosion specifically?

— We’ve learned even more in recent weeks than we already knew about how confused the mine rescue efforts were at Upper Big Branch. Will the McAteer team take that issue head-on, and suggest reforms that would get politics out of the mine rescue business and leave it to the professionals?

— What about MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training?  Did they use all of the tools at their disposal to prevent a disaster like this from happening?

— What reforms are needed? Better enforcement of existing mine safety standards? New laws? Both?

— Finally, what about the investigation process itself? This one has been shrouded in much secrecy. Even McAteer’s team has not hosted a public hearing, as they did when they investigated the Sago Mine Disaster. What changes in how mine disasters are investigated will be proposed?