AP Business Writer
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The investigation of the underground explosion that killed 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine a year ago underscores the need for new and stiffer laws and better technology, the head of one probe said Thursday.
Davitt McAteer didn't reveal any conclusions about the cause of the explosion from a special investigation he is heading for the West Virginia governor's office. McAteer said his report should be released in a matter of weeks.
His remarks came during a presentation to about 60 people at an industry safety conference Thursday in Charleston. McAteer is a former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and was appointed to run a separate state investigation shortly after the April 5, 2010, blast at the Massey Energy Co. mine about 50 miles south of Charleston.
"First, we need to make advance notice of inspection a felony," McAteer said.
Currently, such warnings are a misdemeanor. Upper Big Branch miners have told Congress that Massey had a practice of alerting crews underground when government inspectors arrived. An Upper Big Branch security official is facing federal criminal charges alleging he lied to the FBI about the practice. The official also is accused of directing the disposal of thousands of pages of security documents from the mine.
"We cannot subvert the inspection system," McAteer said. "Why do you think that the state police don't announce where they're going to place their cars on the highway?"
McAteer also called for mines to be required to use more pulverized rock to control highly explosive coal dust. Federal investigators believe excessive coal dust across much of the sprawling underground workings contributed to the explosion that started with a small methane gas ignition.
Massey has rejected that conclusion.
Mines should be using rock dust barriers to knock down explosions and simply spreading more of the material more often, McAteer said.
"It is not an expensive fix, it is not a difficult fix, it is a time-consuming fix," he said. "It is a fix, which, if applied, provides that level of mitigation and provides that level of defense that we absolutely have to have."
McAteer also called for mines to improve technology to track miners underground, detect methane gas and monitor ventilation equipment and more open investigations, among other things.