JULIAN, W.Va. – The coal mine rocked by an explosion that killed at least 25 workers in the nation’s deadliest mining disaster since 1984 had been cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half, some of them for not properly ventilating methane – the highly combustible gas suspected in the blast.
The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine has focused attention on the business and safety practices of the owner, Massey Energy, a powerful and politically connected company in Appalachia known for producing big profits, as well as big piles of safety and environmental violations and big damage awards for grieving widows.
“There are mines in this country who have operated safely for 20 years,” said J. Davitt McAteer, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration. “There are mines who take precautions ahead of time. There are mines who spend the money and manpower to do it.”
He added: “Those mines haven’t been blown up.”
Four other miners were missing and feared dead underground in Monday’s blast, believed to have been caused by a buildup of methane, a naturally occurring gas that is odorless and colorless.
Last year alone, MSHA cited Upper Big Branch for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines. Production more than tripled during that period, according to federal records. So far this year, the agency has found 105 violations at the mine.
Upper Big Branch is one of Massey’s biggest underground mines, with more than 200 employees, and it is not uncommon for big coal mines to amass hundreds of violations a year – and to contest many of them, as Massey does. But most big mines don’t have as many serious infractions as Upper Big Branch, industry experts said.
At least 50 citations charge the company with “unwarrantable failure” to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials or designating escape routes.
“I’ve never seen that many for one mine in a year,” said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News. “If you look at other mines that are the same size or bigger, they do not have the sheer number of ‘unwarrantable’ citations that this mine has.”
Massey has had problems elsewhere, too. In 2006, two miners were killed in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. Massey settled a wrongful death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, and its subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties.
Testimony showed Massey CEO Don Blankenship suggested firing two supervisors for raising concerns about conveyer belt problems just before the belt caught fire.
In an interview less than 24 hours after the disaster at Upper Big Branch, Blankenship insisted the mine is no more dangerous than others of comparable size, and he defended the company’s track record in a perilous business.
“It’s natural that the enemies of coal would view Massey as the primary enemy,” he said.
He pointed out Massey’s many innovations, such as installing steps in place of ladders and putting protective cages on underground vehicles even though the government doesn’t require them.
“I think that I’ve proven that we run safer coal mines – you know, most of the time – and accidents sometimes happen. We’ve got to figure out what happened here,” he said.