West Virginia mine has been cited for myriad safety violations

About 50 mourners gathered Tuesday at a small West Virginia church a few miles from the site of a deadly mine explosion to remember the 25 victims and pray for four missing miners.
By Steven Mufson, Jerry Markon and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The West Virginia mine where at least 25 workers died Monday in an explosion was written up more than 50 times last month for safety violations. Twelve of the citations involved problems with ventilating the mine and preventing a buildup of deadly methane.

Federal regulators and members of Congress said they would examine the safety history of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine south of Charleston, the site of the worst U.S. mining accident in a quarter-century. Meanwhile, rescue efforts were set to continue Wednesday to find four missing mineworkers.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) said crews would drill thousand-foot boreholes to ventilate methane, the highly combustible gas that has built up in the mine since the explosion and forced rescue teams to suspend recovery operations. Manchin described the explosion as "horrific," and state and federal officials said it would be a "miracle" if anyone survived.

Massey Energy says on its Web site that the company's safety record has been better than the industry average for six consecutive years, with its workers losing less time on the job through work-site accidents than its competitors. But in seven of the past eight years, Upper Big Branch miners lost more time on the job through work-site accidents than did other miners nationally, federal records show.

Three miners have died there since 1998, and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Upper Big Branch for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday, proposing $1.89 million in fines, according to federal records.

That record "is a sign that they are not fixing their safety problems," said Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It is not unusual for a mine to receive a substantial number of citations, she said, but the recent violations involving the mine's ventilation system "are a red flag. It's a signal that something is not right there, something is going wrong at that mine."

One former senior federal mine safety regulator said Tuesday that the MSHA should have closed down the mine after so many citations. "The regulators have failed to do their job," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating his consulting work.

Officials have the authority to shutter a mine under federal law if they find "a history of repeated and significant and substantial violations," but safety citations have rarely, if ever, led federal officials to order the closure of a mine.

One reason, those officials said Tuesday, is that companies can contest citations and fines proposed by the government, which delays their effect.

The company has contested nearly a third of the violations it has received since 2005, focusing on those carrying the costliest penalties. Its appeals have held up about $1.3 million in proposed penalties for the violations, records show.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) suggested that investigators look at how mining companies have drawn out the appeals process, noting that the process could potentially delay closing unsafe mines for years.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I know how lawyers work, so they can stretch these things out," Rockefeller said.

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