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Backlog hindered mine safety effort

Forty-eight mines could have received increased federal scrutiny last fall but did not because of thousands of unresolved appeals of safety citations, NBC News reported.
/ Source: NBC, and news services

West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine was on a list of 48 mines that could have received increased scrutiny by federal regulators but did not because of thousands of unresolved appeals of safety citations, NBC News reported.

The mines had frequent enough violations that they could have been sanctioned under the "pattern of violation" rule. Once a mine is notified that it may be under a pattern of violation, immediate action must be taken to reduce future violations or face drastic sanctions – including closure.

But the 48 mines were not given notice because of a backlog of more than 16,000 appeals by operators.

An explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners and injured two on April 5 in the nation's worst coal mining accident in four decades.

The number of mines had been released at a congressional hearing in February but the names had been kept secret until the House Education and Labor Committee released the list on Wednesday. The list includes mines that would have received notice of a potential pattern of violation sanction in October 2009.

Six of the coal mines on the list are operated by Massey Energy Co., owners of Upper Big Branch Mine, and 22 are in West Virginia.

The safety of coal miners drew more more attention in Washington Wednesday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi eulogized the fallen Upper Big Branch miners and called on more oversight of the industry.

"Now with this tragedy first in our minds, we must redouble our efforts to minimize the risks to our mine workers and to ensure that they can do their jobs without a threat to their well-being," she said.

Gov. orders inspections
In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin ordered the immediate inspection of all underground coal mines.

Manchin also asked for the state's more than 200 underground coal mines to cease production Friday to mourn the victims of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

"I don't know any better way to honor the miners we've lost and the families who are grieving so much," Manchin said. The economic cost of such a shut down would "take care of itself," the governor said.

The executive order tells state regulators to start checking mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year.

Highly explosive methane gas is believed to have played a role in the April 5 blast at Upper Big Branch mine. The levels of gas have also been a constant problem since the explosion, preventing crews from finding four missing miners for several days and this week keeping investigators from going underground to look for a cause of the blast.

Manchin wants the high-priority mines inspected within two weeks. His order said inspectors who find such risks or other health or safety violations can partially evacuate the mine or close it.

A mine will be considered a high priority for inspection if the mine safety director "determines that combustion risks have repeatedly occurred at the mine over the most recent twelve-month period," the order stated.