Coal Tattoo

MSHA to families: UBB mine kept 2 sets of books

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have wrapped up their meeting with the families of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the briefing seems to have revealed a few new pieces of information.

First of all, the meeting apparently kicked off with a recorded video from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who again expressed her sympathy to the families, thanked them for allowing her to spend time with them during the vigil that week in April 2010, and also promised the government would “leave no stone unturned”  in prosecuting any criminal activity found to have occurred at Upper Big Branch.

But the biggest piece of news, according to numerous people who attended the briefing, is that MSHA revealed that agency investigators believe Massey’s Performance Coal Co. subsidiary was essentially keeping two sets of books about safety problems and hazards at the UBB operation.  One set was called the “official” book, and that’s what was shown to government inspectors. The other set was called the “production” book, but it also included notations about safety problems or hazards discovered at the mine.

Shirley Whitt, whose brother Boone Payne died in the disaster, said that MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin told the families that there was, “One set of books that had what problems they’d run into. That set was for Massey.  Then other set was for MSHA so MSHA wouldn’t have any idea of the problems they were having.”  Whitt said Stricklin told families that it was very unusual, but not necessarily illegal to have two sets of mine examination books.

But Whitt told the Gazette’s Gary Harki tonight:

I think that it makes it obvious that they (Massey) were trying to hide something. Why else would you do that?

When family members pressed on the question of the legality of the two sets of books, MSHA’s top lawyer, Patricia Smith, told the families that both MSHA and the U.S. Department of Justice were closely examining the two sets of books for potential violations of civil and criminal statutes that require accurate recording of hazards.

Several sources who attended tonight’s meeting also told me that MSHA officials told families that they have found Massey routinely did not record the required methane readings and airflow readings that were supposed to be part of regular mine safety examinations by company officials.

MSHA officials spent a fair amount of time at tonight’s meeting explaining in some detail why they believe that Massey Energy’s “natural disaster” theory of the explosion is just wrong, and more details on that issue will likely be forthcoming during the MSHA media briefing scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow.

MSHA investigators have apparently completed a more than 200-page draft of their report on the disaster, but don’t expect to make it public in final form until sometime late this fall, according to sources who attended tonight’s meeting.