Federal inspectors found a string of safety violations at a sprawling West Virginia coal mine in the months and days leading up to an explosion that killed 25 this week, including two citations the day of the explosion. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press paint a troubling picture of procedures at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday's explosion in the heart of West Virginia coal country. Safety advocates said the mine's track record, particularly a pair of January violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine's history, should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators.
In the January inspection, regulators found that dirty air was being directed into an escapeway where fresh air should be. They also found that an emergency air system was flowing in the wrong direction, which could leave workers without fresh air in their primary escape route.
Terry Moore, the mine foreman, told officials that he was aware of one of the problems and that it had been occurring for about three weeks.
"Mr. Moore engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that he was aware of the condition," the Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in fining the company a combined $130,000.
Cited on day of blast
While records indicate those problems were fixed the same day, the mine's operator, Massey subisidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to rack up citations until the day of the blast. MSHA inspectors ticketed the mine Monday over inadequate maps of escape routes and an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.
Trouble had been building at Upper Big Branch for a long time. Violations in 2009 were roughly double the amount from any previous year, and the January citation involving Moore was one of at least 50 "unwarrantable failure" violations assessed there in the past year, the most serious type of violation that MSHA can assess.
The January problems could have triggered an explosion if they weren't corrected, said Celeste Monforton, who spent six years as a special assistant to MSHA's assistant director and is now an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.
"It's definitely a big, big, big, big signal — a red flag — about major problems in the mine," Monforton said.
The most serious violations could have warranted a criminal investigation, said Tony Oppegard, a Clinton appointee who served as the adviser to the assistant secretary of MSHA for 2½ years. Oppegard said regulators should have determined that the mine has a "pattern of violations," a rarely used distinction that can allow officials to shut down operations.
Concern about gas levels
"Had it been on a pattern of violations, maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved," Oppegard said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes the mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, told the AP on Wednesday that he'd been hearing for at least two months from Upper Big Branch workers concerned about methane levels at the mine. Methane, a colorless, odorless gas common in underground mines, is suspected as the cause of the blast.
"I have talked to individuals who have been in coal mines or have loved ones who have been working in coal mines who will not be identified by name but will say that something is fishy here," Rahall said. "That there are corners being cut."
Rahall didn't say whether he took action on the complaints, which he said came from at least three people. Rahall spokesman Blake Androff later backed away from Rahall's comments, saying the complaints the congressman was referring to had only been made since the explosion.
Last year, MSHA ordered the mine closed 29 times to correct problems found by inspectors, said Kevin Stricklin, an MSHA administrator in West Virginia. He did not know why each citation was issued or how long the mine was forced to close each time, but closure times can vary widely.
'Very bad condition'
"Any time you issue a D order, it's a very bad condition," Stricklin said. "I don't want to call it unusual, but it's a serious condition."
Forced shutdowns are not uncommon, especially since 2008, when federal officials cracked down following a string of mine accidents that left dozens dead.
While the stepped-up enforcement has produced more citations, it has also led companies like Massey to sidestep the harshest punishments by appealing the fines.
In 2005, the year before the Sago mine disaster that killed 12, mines contested just 6 percent of the violations they faced. That rate steadily climbed to 27 percent last year, the AP found.
Massey is still contesting more than a third of all its violations at Upper Big Branch since 2007, according to an AP analysis. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.
Upper Big Branch also has a history of violations for not properly ventilating methane.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has conceded that the explosion shows the mine was not completely safe, but he has insisted it was no more dangerous than comparable mines and maintains that Massey has a commendable safety record.
The industry has defended the practice of appealing its violations. Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association, has said in written comments submitted to Congress that it does not jeopardize mine safety. He did not return a call seeking further comment.
Safety officials warned Congress three months ago that the backlog of violations could undermine a crackdown on repeat offenders. A backlog of some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties is pending before a review commission. In 2009, companies protested roughly two-thirds of the $141 million in penalties assessed by federal regulators.