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Inspectors say conditions at Massey mine posed significant risks

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Safety inspectors concluded as recently as last month that conditions at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine posed substantial and significant risks to miner well-being before a Monday explosion killed 25 miners and trapped 4.

In March alone, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited the mine, which is owned by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., for failing to control dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.

Since 1995, there have been more than 3,000 violations at Upper Big Branch, though it was not immediately clear how that compared to other mines of its size.

Of the $1.5 million in penalties MSHA proposed since 2007, Massey has actually paid less than $300,000.

The proposed fines for this year alone amount to about $190,000. Last year, the mine faced $900,000 in fines for more than 450 violations, including 48 "unwarrantable failure orders," which are considered serious.

Many of those citations and fines are being contested.

The violations appear "quite relevant" to Monday's explosion, said Scott Simonton, a professor of environmental science and environmental engineering at Marshall University.

"The fact that these seem like to me to be some serious violations and not just some paperwork violation - these are serious violations, especially in light of what has happened," he said.

Dennis O'Dell, an administrator of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America, said after a brief review of federal data he saw serious violations at the mine.

He noted the relatively expensive fines that regulators are trying to levy on Massey.

Two citations from January for not having a proper plan to ventilate the mine, extracting methane and other chemicals from the air, could cost Massey more than $130,000 in fines. The company is contesting both those regulatory actions.

Such contests are the norm, O'Dell said, and they are part of the problem.

The company is required to fix problems inspectors find when they are found, but by keeping cases open, companies can prevent MSHA from establishing a so-called "pattern of violation," which could allow regulators to shut down the mine, O'Dell said.

"They can't put you on a pattern of violation and they can't close you down, but you can keep on violating that same law," he said.

As long as the company can keep the cases tied up, regulators can't build a case against them, he said.

Company officials did not respond to a message asking about the mine's safety record, but Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement that the company's "top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."

According to federal records, there have been three previous fatalities at the Upper Branch Mine site since 1995.

In January 1998, a contractor died when materials fell on him.

In March 2001, a miner died when he was struck by falling rock at the mine.

In July 2003, an electrician was fatally electrocuted while repairing a shuttle car trailing cable.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at or 304-348-1796.


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