By Steve James
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The worst U.S. coal mine accident in four decades, in which 29 miners died, was "man-made" and could have been avoided if mine owner Massey Energy Co had followed basic safety measures, an independent investigation concluded on Thursday.
The report into last year's Upper Big Branch blast also found that Massey miners lacked adequate training in safety or in recognizing hazards, and it called for tougher enforcement powers for federal and state mine inspectors.
"The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures," said the report, ordered by then-West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.
"Miners' rights to a safe workplace are compromised when the operator's commitment to production comes at the cost of safety," said the report. It did not single out any individuals, such as former chief executive Don Blankenship, who headed Massey for years when it received many safety violations from federal regulators. He has since retired.
A separate investigation into the April 5, 2010 accident, by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), has not yet concluded.
Commenting on the report, MSHA head Joe Main said while his agency's own investigation was still continuing, "it is fair to say that MSHA is in agreement with many of the findings.
"Their report echoes many of the findings that MSHA has been sharing with victims' families and the public," he said. "The tragedy at UBB was entirely preventable. Maintaining a safe mine is the responsibility of the operator."
Former Governor Manchin, now a U.S. senator, said the investigation shows "this tragedy could have been prevented and these types of mistakes should never be repeated.
"The recommendations of the report will provide a blueprint going forward so that no other miners will be put in jeopardy and no other families will have to endure a preventable tragedy," he said in a statement.
The independent investigation, headed by Davitt McAteer, cited failures in ventilation, rock-dusting standards and machinery maintenance and said current mine safety practices failed to keep pace with modern mine production technology. McAteer was a mine safety official in the administration of President Bill Clinton.
The report was released online before families of the dead miners were briefed on its findings.
In a response to the report, Massey said in a statement it agreed that the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane monitoring technology.
"(But) We disagree with Davitt's conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. We believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas," the company said in an email to Reuters.
Massey shares dropped 1.8 percent to $60.65 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares of Alpha Natural Resources Inc, which is acquiring Massey, fell 2.5 percent to $49.85.
Analysts said they saw nothing in the report to suggest the Alpha-Massey merger will not take place.
The blast, at Massey's Big Branch mine near Montcoal, West Virginia, was the deadliest U.S. mine accident in four decades. Massey posted four consecutive quarterly losses following the blast because of idled production from several mines and the company sustained a public relations black eye from which it could not recover.
It has agreed to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in a deal valued at around $7 billion that is expected to close before the end of June.
As part of the takeover, Alpha will assume liabilities related to the accident. Massey said 13 of the families of the dead have filed wrongful death suits against the company, while eight families have signed agreements to settle their claims.
Also, four employees have filed lawsuits against Massey alleging emotional distress or personal injuries. Massey estimated litigation settlements would total $78 million.
In March, a former Massey employee who had worked at Upper Big Branch was charged with making false statements to investigators and forging a document. Another employee, who was the security chief for the mine, has pleaded not guilty to two felony counts of giving false statements to FBI and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators.
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Steve Orlofsky)