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MSHA not answering questions about rescue problems at UBB

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators on Monday refused to answer any questions about complaints from their own rescue team members that lives were unnecessarily put at risk during the effort to find possible survivors at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine last April.

Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, issued a short statement that cited his agency's ongoing investigation in refusing to give interviews or answer written questions about the matter.

"A number of questions pertaining to specific aspects of the rescue and recovery are difficult to answer at this time, primarily because we are still in the midst of an ongoing accident investigation, as is the internal review team," Main said in a prepared statement.

On Friday, just before the Mother's Day weekend, MSHA made available to families of the 29 miners who died at Upper Big Branch hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews with mine rescue team members who worked underground after the April 5, 2010, explosion.

Copies of the transcripts were not officially released to the public and the media until Monday morning, but details of the documents were published Friday evening by the Gazette, based on transcripts obtained by the newspaper.

Several MSHA rescue team members told state and federal investigators that they were concerned in the hours after the explosion that Massey Energy was directing them to continue underground without having required backup teams available. The top MSHA official directing the rescue effort, Robert Hardman, overruled his agency's rescuers, siding with the plan pushed by Massey executive Chris Adkins, the transcripts show.

"They could've ... they could've killed every one of us," said Jerry Cook, one of the top MSHA mine rescue team members. "At that time, we were expendable that night, that's my opinion. They didn't care what they did with us."

MSHA rescuers were also concerned later during the weeklong Upper Big Branch incident, when they were being pushed to make a run deep into the mine to inspect refuge chambers, despite rescuers' belief that none of the miners could have survived and made to those shelters.

Earlier Monday, Main had downplayed any concerns raised by his own agency's mine rescue team members, saying past mine rescues have shown that "confusion is not uncommon, and information is not always effectively communicated as rescuers search for survivors in a race against time and in a life-threatening atmosphere.

"This rescue operation was no different," Main said.

Main also defended his agency's refusal to release certain documents, including other witness transcripts, concerning the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

"The Mine Act requires that MSHA conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident," Main said. "It does not require us to publicly release information such as witness interview transcripts."

However, the Mine Act does state that "All records, information, reports, findings, citations, notices, orders, or decisions required or issued pursuant to or under this Act ... shall be made available for public inspection."

MSHA has released interview transcripts for 25 mine rescue team members from the agency, Massey Energy and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. But MSHA did not make public transcripts of interviews with top agency officials who directed the rescue effort, including Hardman and MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin.

In the days after the explosion, a staffer for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd warned MSHA that families of mine rescue team members were concerned about the rescuers' safety and urged the agency to make information about the rescue teams available to those families and the public.

Charmaine Manansala, a Labor Department staffer, responded that "The rescue teams are the company's responsibility so only they have that information that you're looking for," according to email records obtained by the Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act. "As soon as the company makes the info public, MSHA will post it on the website."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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