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Unsealed Documents Reveal Lax Attention To Safety Before Mine Blast

We've reported and heard plenty in the last year about how the Upper Big Branch mine explosion was preceded by failures to strictly apply mine safety regulations and practices. Both mine owner Massey Energy and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration share blame, according to a recent report from the West Virginia Governor's Independent Investigation of the disaster.

Now, there's evidence the board of directors of Massey Energy also failed to provide safety oversight, despite a court order.

The evidence comes in more than 5,300 pages of documents that a West Virginia judge ordered unsealed in response to a joint motion filed by NPR and the Charleston Gazette.

Gazette reporter Ken Ward has focused on this as he combs through the documents, and reports "Massey's board did not appear to take seriously a court settlement that required it to take a larger role in the coal giant's safety practices."

The 2008 court order resulted from a so-called "derivative" lawsuit filed by several large institutional shareholders against Massey executives and board members.

The lawsuit claimed that poor safety practices at Massey coal mines diminished the value of the company at the expense of shareholders.

The court order required the Massey board to assume specific safety oversight responsibilities. But, as the documents show and Ward reports, the board failed to follow through in the years and months before the Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29 Massey mine workers.

Among the failures cited in the documents and Ward's story:

-- A newly-hired Vice President for Safety was required to report to CEO Don Blankenship and not a board safety committee, as the court order required.

-- The board's safety committee waited until after the Upper Big Branch explosion to begin gathering information from Massey's safety compliance reporting system.

-- After the disaster, the board discovered that CEO Blankenship had setup a safety reporting system that defied the terms of the court order.

-- The board failed to take action about well-known safety problems at several Massey mines, including an injury rate at one mine more than double the national average, hundreds of safety violations and millions of dollars in fines at another mine, and a Kentucky mine considered so dangerous by federal regulators they sought the first-ever federal court injunction that could have placed safety compliance at the mine under a judge's supervision.

The documents unsealed Wednesday do not actually include those authorized for release by Judge Charles King in Kanawha County Circuit Court. NPR and the Charleston Gazette are returning to court in West Virginia to seek a court order requiring the release of the relevant documents.

We'll have more on those documents here and Ward will continue to post stories gleaned from them on his Coal Tattoo blog.

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