- Associated Press - Thursday, April 5, 2012

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged West Virginians to observe a moment of silence Thursday, starting at 3:01 p.m., to mark the second anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the deaths of 29 men.

The powerful April 5, 2010, explosion at the former Massey Energy mine near Montcoal was fueled by methane and coal dust, traveling miles of underground corners and killing men instantly.

Meanwhile, the mine’s new owner, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, announced that the mine will be sealed with concrete.

The company said Wednesday it will seal the portals — large tunnels miners use to get underground — at the mine. Boreholes will be plugged and shafts that house the huge industrial fans meant to sweep bad air out of the mine will be capped to prevent any access. The job should be finished by summer, the company said.

The mine disaster was the worst in the United States in four decades and has since led to a $210 million settlement between Alpha Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Former mine superintendent Gary May recently pleaded guilty to a charge of defrauding the federal government for his actions at the mine and is cooperating with investigators in their continuing criminal probe. May is the highest-ranking company official charged in connection with the blast so far and could get up to five years in prison when sentenced in August.

Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, meanwhile, is appealing his three-year sentence for lying to investigators and ordering the destruction of documents after the blast.

Wreath-laying ceremonies were scheduled Thursday at the West Virginia Coal Miner Statue outside the state Capitol in Charleston and at the Raleigh County Courthouse in Beckley, while a candlelight walk through Whitesville was planned for the evening.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis called the explosion “the single most heartbreaking day of my tenure” and touted the many changes that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has since made “to counteract the type of misdeeds that were so prevalent at Upper Big Branch.”

Several investigations have determined that Massey systematically covered up problems at Upper Big Branch through an elaborate scheme that included sanitized safety inspection books and an advance-warning system that let miners underground know inspectors were onsite.

“If every mine operator meets its legal obligation to ensure the safety and health of its workers,” Mrs. Solis said, “we can prevent another tragedy like the one at Upper Big Branch from ever happening again.”

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, said he hopes the now-infamous date ultimately will mark “a turning point in our national commitment to miners.”

Mr. Rahall has been pressing congressional colleagues to act on long-stalled legislation that would give stronger protections to coal miners who blow the whistle on dangerous conditions, give MSHA federal subpoena power and impose stiffer criminal penalties that would be a meaningful deterrent.

“I remain committed to working to pass legislation that will prevent bad-actor operators — a small minority of our coal companies — from calculatingly breaking the law and putting their own miners in danger for the sake of profit,” Mr. Rahall said.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, who was governor at the time, said he thinks about the disaster every day “and the fact that it could have been prevented.”

He vowed to fight every day to make the safety of miners a priority.

“All the miners across the country who kiss their families goodbye before leaving for a shift should know that they will return home again safely,” he said.

An MSHA internal review concluded that federal inspectors either missed problems or failed to examine areas where they existed in the 18 months before the blast but found no evidence those failures caused it.

But a team led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently concluded that timely enforcement of existing regulations “would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented” the explosion.

Although MSHA inspectors wrote 684 violations in the 18 months before the blast, the agency said they failed to act on eight that could have been deemed “flagrant,” the most serious designation. They also failed to conduct special investigations on at least six occasions to determine whether managers knowingly violated safety standards.

MSHA director Joe Main said last week those cases have since been turned over to federal prosecutors.