West Virginia governor launches mine disaster inquiry

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III on Tuesday launched an independent investigation into last week’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners.

J. Davitt McAteer, an assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton, will lead a panel in investigating the April 5 explosion, the deadliest U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.

McAteer is vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University.

He led a 2006 committee that investigated the Sago and Aracoma mine accidents in West Virginia, which killed a combined 14 miners. McAteer will begin assembling a team this week.

“We owe it to the families of the 29 miners we lost last week to find out what caused this,” Manchin said in a statement.

The McAteer investigation will be in addition to inquiries by state and federal officials.

Authorities have said high methane levels might have played a role in the explosion.

Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with its methane venting system, and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

In addition, federal officials said Tuesday that an error in a computer program that screens mines for patterns of violations failed to include eight citations at the mine.

The mine should have been notified and sent a letter warning it to reduce violations by 30% in 90 days.

But from October to December 2009, the mine reduced its “significant and substantial” violations by nearly 65%, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said.

“The computer programming error did not have an impact on this tragedy,” she said in a statement.