By Steve James
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The blast that killed 29 men in a West Virginia coal mine last year was probably caused by coal dust ignition, compounded by safety failings, intimidation and deception by the mine's owner, the U.S. mine regulator said on Wednesday.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) initial findings into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster contradicted the conclusion of the owner, Massey Energy, that it was sparked by an unexplained inundation of natural gas.
"There was some methane ignition that led to a massive coal dust explosion that could have been prevented," MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin told a public briefing.
The blast was exacerbated by inadequate ventilation and faulty, or nonexistent water sprays, he said.
The final report by the mine safety agency is expected to be released later this year.
Stricklin said the investigators' initial findings were that the April 5, 2010 blast -- the worst in U.S. coal mining in 40 years -- was probably caused by a build-up of coal dust which was ignited by a spark from a shearer on the long-wall equipment cutting coal.
"There was a limited amount of methane and natural gas," he said. Massey's own investigation blamed the blast on a naturally occurring and unpredictable inundation of gas.
Massey, which owned the mine at the time of the accident, has since been acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for $7 billion.
Alpha had no comment on the initial MSHA findings, but at the time of the acquisition, it said its purchase price included liabilities stemming from the accident.
"Alpha knew exactly what they were buying as far as potential liabilities," said coal industry analyst, Jeremy Sussman of Brean Murray Carret & Co. "There is very little that could come as a surprise that might affect Alpha."
According to Stricklin, Massey kept one internal set of production reports detailing safety problems and how they delayed coal production. But the official records, which are reviewed by MSHA and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards.
He cited three examples in the month prior to the blast at the mine, which had a poor safety record, having received more citations and orders of violations than any other U.S. mine.
The mine also had a history of floor heaving, or cracks in the rock floor, through which gas could seep. In fact, there had been a methane explosion there in 1997 and two methane inundations in 2003 and 2004.
"MSHA investigated and made recommendations, but there is no evidence they were acted on," Stricklin said.
He said Massey had received 17 violations in the year before the explosion for inadequate rock dusting -- coating the walls and roof of the nine with sandstone powder to cut down the risk of ignition.
"We concluded there were chronic ventilation problems at Upper Big Branch," Stricklin said.
In addition, Massey engaged in intimidation of workers by threatening dismissal for not reaching production goals or shutting down operations for safety hazards. MSHA also found there were training deficiencies among the Massey workforce.
The mine safety agency said security guards would radio the mine office to warn of the arrival of MSHA inspectors. This information was relayed underground, where work crews had time to clear up any obvious failings, Stricklin said.
MSHA officials met with families of the 29 dead on Tuesday night to brief them on the initial findings. Eight families have agreed to accept settlements from Massey, while 13 families have filed wrongful death suits.
Another investigation by the state of West Virginia is still going on and a third, independent investigation released its findings last month, concluding the accident was "man-made" and could have been prevented if Massey had followed basic safety measures.
Shares of Alpha were up 2.4 percent at $45.66 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Reporting by Steve James; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Phil Berlowitz)