Nightly News   |  April 06, 2010

Massey's mine safety record under scrutiny

Experts say that of the 124 safety violations issued this year at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, some involved ventilation issues, which should have--but failed to--raise a red flag for safety regulators. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And while the search for the missing goes on, a lot of questions are being asked about this mining company . Massey Energy is well-known in the industry. So is its outspoken CEO. Our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers with us tonight from Washington with more on this angle of the story . Lisa , good evening .

LISA MYERS reporting: Good evening , Brian . After the Sago disaster in which a dozen miners were killed, both the federal government and West Virginia toughened mine safety laws. Yet this mine was still operating after repeated and serious safety violations , which experts say should have raised red flags . The Upper Big Branch Mine has been cited for 124 safety violations so far this year, two of them only yesterday. Federal records show some serious violations over the last year involving ventilation, dust and methane gas .

Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Former Mine Safety and health Administration Director): And when you see repeated violations , month after month, year after year, that says the company 's not taking seriously its safety responsibilities.

MYERS: Davitt McAteer , who investigated previous mine disasters, says the scope of violations should have raised red flags , especially those involving ventilation.

Mr. McATEER: It doesn't get any more serious in a mine than that. The ventilation is critical to keeping miners alive, keeping the gases away and keeping the potential for explosions away.

MYERS: Before yesterday, federal records indicate that three workers had been killed in accidents at this mine since 1998 . It's operated by a subsidiary of Massey Energy and its controversial CEO, Don Blankenship . Jeff Goodell wrote a book about the coal industry .

Mr. JEFF GOODELL: Don Blankenship is probably the most politically powerful character in West Virginia right now. He is a throwback to the old coal barons of the 19th century .

MYERS: Today Blankenship defended the mine's safety record.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (Massey Energy CEO): I don't think it would be classified as having issues with safety . It's not Massey 's safest coal mine . It's a large mine, and large mines with lots of people, you know, you get more violations .

MYERS: But Massey has had safety problems. After a 2006 fire killed two miners at its Aracoma mine, the company paid the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for willfully violating safety standards. The new mine safety laws were supposed to improve safety , in part by increasing fines. But critics say some companies have figured out how to work the system. For example, the Upper Big Branch Mine was cited for 500 safety violations in 2009 and so far has paid $168,000 in fines.

Source: MSHA

MYERS: That's less than Massey Energy earns in an hour from coal mining . Given the number of lives lost in this tragedy, Congress is likely to reassess whether mine safety rules need to be tougher and more vigorously enforced.

Brian: Lisa Myers in our Washington newsroom with that angle of this story . Lisa , thanks.