updated 3/30/2007 12:49:05 AM ET 2007-03-30T04:49:05

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has levied a record $1.5 million fine against Massey Energy Co. for 25 violations that contributed to the deaths of two West Virginia coal miners in January 2006.

"The number and severity of the safety violations that occurred demonstrated a reckless disregard for safety," MSHA Director Richard Stickler said in a news conference.

The fine is the largest the agency has ever imposed for a coal mining accident, surpassing the old mark of $540,000 for a January 1991 methane gas explosion that killed two miners at another West Virginia mine.

Miners Don I. Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield died in the Jan. 19, 2006, fire after getting lost in thick, choking smoke inside the Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma No. 1 underground mine in Logan County. Aracoma is a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey.

Lead federal investigator Ken Murray said the severity of the violations prompted the mine safety agency to refer initial findings about the fire to federal prosecutors late last March.

The U.S. attorney's office in Charleston is investigating.

MSHA's investigation largely mirrors the state's conclusions about the fire. State investigators pinpointed a conveyor belt as the source of the fire and concluded that missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors. The state also found that water lines for fire hoses and sprinklers at the scene of the fire were shut off and that fire hoses couldn't be connected because of incompatible fittings, a problem that had been reported to management after a similar fire on Dec. 23, 2005.

The federal agency also determined the mine was not following its approved ventilation plan. Air that should have gone to the face of the coal seam was being pumped in the opposite direction.

Massey Energy said in a prepared statement that it was reviewing the report but had no specific comments about it.

The company said it would consider the findings as part of its own investigation and added that it remains "deeply saddened by the loss of its two miners and is committed to taking the actions necessary to conduct mining safely."

'Safety was not a priority'
But Bruce Stanley, an attorney representing Bragg's and Hatfield's widows, said the MSHA report indicates just the opposite. "It's obvious that at this mine, safety was not a priority," Stanley said.

United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts issued a statement calling the mine a deathtrap.

"The report shows that Massey management at the mine violated multiple safety laws at Aracoma that led directly to the tragic deaths of the two miners," he said. "The report also demonstrates that these conditions were ongoing for weeks and months prior to the underground fire."

The fire occurred as the state and industry were still reeling from the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 men just 17 days earlier.

West Virginia swiftly adopted legislation that requires mines to store extra emergency air packs underground and install two-way communication and tracking systems, among other things. Other coal states and eventually Congress followed suit with the broadest federal mine safety legislation in decades.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal legislation alone will cost the industry $128 million — but that figure doesn't include some costs, such as lost production when miners are training.

Upping the safety quota
This past winter, West Virginia approved legislation that permits temporary closure of mines with poor safety records and sets up a rigorous application and review process for mines that want to use so-called belt air for ventilation. Critics, including the United Mine Workers union, say pumping fresh air through shafts that bring coal to the surface fanned the flames at Aracoma, contributing to the deaths of Bragg and Hatfield.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety is working on its own report and potentially more regulations.

Separately, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is pursuing disciplinary action against seven Aracoma employees. The state wants to strip five of the miners of their mining certificates and suspend two of them.

The two miners' widows also are suing Massey, two subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship in Logan Circuit Court, seeking unspecified damages.

Massey is the nation's fourth-largest coal producer by revenue and operates 19 mining complexes in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Massey Energy shares fell 10 cents to close Thursday at $24 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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