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Inquiry into Upper Big Branch Mine disaster nears its end

| Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

BECKLEY, W.Va -- Federal investigators are sifting through thousands of pieces of evidence and are 60 to 90 days from revealing a "comprehensive explanation" of what caused an explosion that killed 29 men inside a West Virginia mine, officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration said last night.

"There are thousands of pieces that we have on the table, (and) we're in the process now of sitting down and weeding through it," said Joe Main, MSHA's assistant secretary of Labor. "We are pressing our folks to put all these pieces together."

The April 5 explosion inside Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., was the deadliest U.S. mine tragedy in 40 years.

Main and other federal officials briefed the dead miners' families on the status of their investigation at MSHA's Mining Academy on Airport Road.

Coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said investigators are nearly done. He said they have interviewed 261 people, and 18 potential witnesses refused to testify by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who retired Dec. 31, was among those who refused to testify, MSHA officials said.

Investigators found evidence of two deployed self-rescuers inside the mine.

Stricklin said investigators are "well aware that people from (Massey) management went underground shortly after the explosion. We have a good feel for who those people were."

He did not say what investigators believe they were doing in the mine. In the days after the blast, Stricklin said the men were not trained mine rescuers.

The cause of the blast is still under investigation, but investigators said a preliminary analysis suggests a "small methane ignition transitioned into a massive coal dust explosion." Samples taken inside the mine showed high levels of coal dust, which can fuel an explosion, they said.

Blankenship has suggested that the mine was flooded with methane gas through a crack in the mine floor, leading to the explosion.

The meeting was the first with families since September. It happened less than a week after MSHA agreed to delay public hearings and the release of transcripts of investigators' interviews with witnesses.

Department of Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith told the families the delay was accepted to avoid jeopardizing a separate criminal investigation by the Department of Justice.

"The DOJ has been very serious about their criminal investigation," Smith said. "If it would interfere with bringing some individuals to justice, we don't want to do that."

Smith said she has no knowledge of the status of the criminal investigation.

The officials asked the families for patience. They said they have encountered several delays, including unsafe conditions inside the mine that prevented them from going underground until late June. Flooding was an issue, as were legal challenges by Massey, which questioned MSHA's investigation methods.

"The president of the United States promised we would have a thorough investigation and we would have justice served," Main said. "We are continuing. We're not stopping the investigation process."

Smith and Main will hold a conference call for reporters today to discuss the investigation. An MSHA spokeswoman said they will discuss investigation timelines, the decision to delay public hearings and the release of transcripts, and offer a recap of what they told the families last night in Beckley.

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