With no survivors in West Virginia mine blast, focus shifts to responsibility

Investigators say 'no stone will be left unturned' in finding the cause of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Criminal charges are rare following mine disasters, and causes for explosions can be complex.

A sign is posted on a mailbox near the entrance to the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The last four miners were found dead Saturday morning, bringing the total lost to 29.

Rescuers working 1,000 feet underground in the Upper Big Branch mine returned to the surface early Saturday morning with bad news: There were no survivors left in the worst US coal mining accident in 40 years. Twenty-nine died.

"We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for," Gov. Joe Manchin said in a barely-audible voice. "So this journey has ended and now the healing will start."

But healing isn't all families, investigators and even President Obama want: Capping off a draining and sadly familiar scene in Appalachian coal country, Americans now turn inevitably to the next question: Who – or what – is responsible?

IN PICTURES: West Virginia mine explosion

The investigation is sure to once again test the uneasy tension between coal operators and safety regulators as mine experts try to reconstruct what caused the ripping blast – and whether it could have been avoided.

Tougher laws sought

Following disasters at the Sago and Aracoma Alma mines four years ago, federal regulators have sought tougher laws with sharper teeth to shake coal companies out of what many perceive as a troubling complacency about safety in the mines. That effort may have a way to go, judging by last week's explosion.

"No stone will be unturned" in the investigation, the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Kevin Stricklin told the New York Times.

The investigation at the mine, which is owned by Massey Energy Co., also will be joined by President Obama, who is expecting answers in a report due next week.

Miners know they have dangerous jobs, said Obama, but "the government and their employer know that they owe it to these employees’ families to do everything possible to ensure their safety.”

Company repeatedly fined

Since the explosion, details of safety violations at the mine have emerged. The company has been repeatedly fined for issues with a venting system in the Upper Big Branch. Methane build-up likely caused the explosion, experts say.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship has defended his company's safety record, bluntly stating that he values miners' lives more than the black rock.

To be sure, much is yet to be determined about the cause of the accident. After the 2006 Sago mine explosion, investigators found lightning, not human error, likely caused the explosion.

Criminal charges rare

Criminal charges against actual mine operators are rare, but the government has filed – and won – criminal lawsuits against companies. In 2008, a subsidiary of Massey paid out $4.2 million in civil and criminal fines for a 2006 fire that killed two workers at Aracoma Alma.

(Other countries aren't so sanguine when it comes to mine safety. In 2004, China executed a party official for helping to cover up a 2001 tin mine disaster in Guangxi, which killed at least 81 miners.)

Early Saturday morning, rescuers found the final four bodies, ending days of harrowing searches where crews traversed winding shafts deep under the crust, fighting noxious fumes and blinding smoke.

“Every disaster doesn’t have to happen,” Christopher Shaw, a policy analyst at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, told the Monitor this week. “They go back and ask, ‘Why did it happen?’ It always turns out people didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”

IN PICTURES: West Virginia mine explosion

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