* Probe blames Upper Big Branch blast on safety failings
* Says accident could have been prevented by Massey
* Massey, Alpha shares drop (Adds investigator’s comments, changes dateline from NEW YORK, changes byline)
By Steven Allen Adams
BECKLEY, West Virginia, May 19 (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 MEE.N had followed basic safety measures, an independent investigation concluded on Thursday.
The report into last year’s Upper Big Branch mine blast said Massey’s safety procedures did not appear to have improved since the accident. It said miners lacked adequate training in safety or in recognizing hazards, and it called for tougher enforcement powers for mine inspectors.
“A great deal went wrong and a great many problems occurred that led to this disaster,” the head of the investigation, Davitt McAteer, told reporters.
“It was compounded by a multitude of problems ... basic fundamental safety precautions and practices were neglected, were not followed,” he said. “And those contributed mightily to the loss of the lives of these miners.”
Referring to two other Massey mines cited for patterns of violations recently, McAteer said: “It does not appear that the culture has changed at Massey. That is most unfortunate.”
In fact, Massey will no longer exist after next month, as it is being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources ANR.N.
An Alpha spokesman told Reuters there was nothing in the report likely to prevent the merger with Massey taking place after votes by each company’s shareholders on June 1.
“We are being pro-active. There may be findings (in the report) we can look at and implement,” said spokesman Ted Pile, noting that all Massey employees would undergo safety training on Day One of the merger.
The McAteer report, ordered by then-West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, said: “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.
“Miners’ rights to a safe workplace are compromised when the operator’s commitment to production comes at the cost of safety,” it said. 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.
MSHA head Joe Main said while his agency’s 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 investigation 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.
In a response, 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 1.2 percent to $61.02 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange, while shares of Alpha Natural Resources fell 1.8 percent to $50.22.
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.
As part of the Massey takeover, Alpha will assume liabilities related to the accident. Massey has said 13 families of the dead have filed wrongful death suits, 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. (Additional reporting by Steve James in New York; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Steve Orlofsky, Gary Hill)