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West Virginia Governor Gov. Joe Manchin has appointed the Clinton Administration U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration chief, J. Davitt McAteer, to head an independent investigation of the explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch coal mine. The death toll from the explosion in that mine now stands at 29. In reports, McAteer has already been critical of current safety standards and the lack of transparency by government and mine officials when dealing with safety regulations.
The Associated Press reports that McAteer's investigation will be independent of the state and federal probes already begun. Gov. Manchin has asked state investigators to target methane gas and coal dust levels, poor ventilation and electrical issues. It is now believed by investigators that methane gas sparked the April 6 explosion that killed more miners than any in the U.S. since 1970. The governor is seeking to ensure other mines in the state are in compliance with all safety rules. At this time, safety inspectors have the right to shut a mine for non-compliance, but that usually happens only after a serious accident, Jama Jarrett of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training told the AP.
McAteer has also conducted similar investigations of the Sago Mine disaster that left 12 dead, as well as the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire that killed two miners. McAteer concluded that the Aracoma mine's system for detecting fires and alerting miners to evacuate was flawed and water to the sprinkler system and fire hoses had been shut off. The Aracoma mine disaster resulted in a wrongful death suit (settled by the company) and in the payment of over $4 million in civil and criminal penalties by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. It is reported that this is the largest fine ever levied for mine safety violations in the U.S.
AP reports Massey's Upper Big Branch mine has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible coal dust to build up. Records showed the mine was cited for 44 violations during its most recent state inspection on April 1. Last year, the West Virginia hit the mine with 287 citations, including 74 involving electricity.
In addition to heading the investigation, J. Davitt McAteer will also serve as Gov. Manchin's special adviser on issues involving the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine.