State mine safety regulators plan to release their report on the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire on Thursday, officials said.
The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training will issue the report on the January fire that killed two workers at the Massey Energy-owned mine in Logan County.
Agency officials plan to brief the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety on the Aracoma report during a meeting Thursday afternoon in Charleston.
The report will be released to the public, and posted on the agency's Web site, www.wvminesafety.org, after the meeting, said spokeswoman Caryn Gresham.
But first, agency officials will brief the families of miners Donald Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, who died in the fire. Also, in a change of state policy, agency investigators will brief Massey Energy officials before the report is released to the public.
Ron Wooten, Gov. Joe Manchin's new mine safety director, said he had "no real modus operandi" for adding the company briefing to the state's investigation policies.
"I've been on the other side of these things, and it just seemed like, in my mind, it was the appropriate thing to do," Wooten said.
Wooten said the meeting would go on, despite the failure of the mine safety board to announce the meeting in time to have it published in the State Register five days in advance, as is required by state law.
"I wasn't intending to violate the open-meetings law at all," Wooten said. "I don't know what we do about that."
The Jan. 19 fire broke out on a conveyor belt deep inside the Aracoma Mine. Most of the workers escaped, but Bragg and Hatfield became separated from their fellow miners. Their bodies were found about two days later, after a frantic search by dozens of rescuers.
Aracoma miners have told investigators that Bragg and Hatfield were lost when their crew hit smoke in their primary escape tunnel, and had to find another route out of the mine, according to interview transcripts.
Miners also told investigators that the primary escape tunnel filled with smoke because block walls that were supposed to separate it from the conveyor belt had been removed, according to the transcripts.
Davitt McAteer, Manchin's special mine safety investigator, has not yet completed his independent review of the Aracoma fire. Federal prosecutors are also continuing a criminal investigation.
Under state law, the mine safety office inspects mines and conducts accident investigations. The mine safety board reviews those investigations and writes the state's mine safety rules.
James Bennett, a former union coal miner and Manchin staffer, is now administrator of the state's coal mine safety board.
Bennett said Tuesday that it was his fault that the public notice for Thursday's meeting did not comply with state law.
"I'm new to this job, and I don't know all of the ins and outs right yet," Bennett said.
Under state law, public meeting announcements must be submitted to the secretary of state in time to be published five days in advance of meeting dates. The notice for Thursday's meeting was not filed until Tuesday, after a Gazette reporter inquired about the notice.
State law says that when meetings are not properly noticed, "any adversely affected party" can sue to invalidate any action taken at the meetings.
Wooten said that the release of the Aracoma report less than a week before Tuesday's general election is "totally coincidental."
Wooten said that the report was being finalized on Tuesday, and that he wanted to issue it as soon as possible.
"As soon as investigations are completed, we want the reports out," Wooten said. "If there's anything in that report that can be helpful to the industry, we want that out there.
"Election day was never, ever mentioned," Wooten said. "The only time it's been mentioned was when the press has mentioned it."
Massey President Don Blankenship has vowed to spend whatever it takes of his personal wealth to put a majority of Republicans into the state Legislature.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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