Mine company faulted on safety issues, regulators say

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 Jerry Markon, David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

The company that owns the West Virginia coal mine where at least 25 workers died this week has pressed its employees for higher productivity rates, sometimes at the expense of safety, according to regulators, lawyers who have sued the company and documents.

The 98-year-old Massey Energy Co., which went public a decade ago, has been acquiring reserves and bolstering its strong presence in the Central Appalachia coal basin. Its chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, has consistently asked for production updates as often as every two hours, according to court documents and interviews.

Some former regulators say the company did not pay enough attention to safety issues, especially those piling up at the Upper Big Branch mine where Monday's explosion took place.

The company was tied to eight fatal accidents at West Virginia mines in 2001 and was blasted by investigators for failing to prevent a 2006 fire that killed two miners. It was cited by federal regulators for 1,342 safety violations over the past five years, including two the day of the explosion. Davitt McAteer, former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and chief investigator of the earlier Massey accidents, called that "a huge number" and said that Monday's explosion "should not have happened. It was preventable."

At the mine Wednesday, workers drilled holes and found high concentrations of toxic gases, setting back plans to send in rescue teams to look for four missing miners and recover the bodies of others who died in the explosion Monday.

Air samples taken from the first borehole to reach the mine shaft nearly 1,100 feet underground showed "really high" concentrations of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, a federal mine safety expert told an afternoon news conference near the site of the Upper Big Branch mine. The air contained about 3 percent highly combustible methane, when mining is considered unsafe above 1 percent. While the methane was "not in the explosive range by itself," it could be when combined with the other gases, said Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

As a result, authorities could not immediately say when rescue personnel would be able to reenter the mine for the first time since they were forced to abandon their efforts early Tuesday because of the danger of setting off another blast.

"We just can't take any chances of the rescue teams going into an area that could . . . cause a problem or an explosion" or put them at risk of getting disoriented in smoke and losing contact with other rescuers, Stricklin said.

"Based on the numbers we're seeing," he said, the chances are "even more minuscule" that any of the four missing miners could survive outside a special rescue chamber with its own air supplies.

For now, the air inside the mine is so bad that it affected the men at the surface who were drilling the boreholes, Stricklin said. Drilling had to be stopped until the air could be vented away from them.

The agency said Wednesday that it would dispatch a team of inspectors and Labor Department lawyers to West Virginia to evaluate potential causes of the explosion and whether Massey was in compliance with federal health and safety standards. Team members will come from outside West Virginia and will be led by Norman Page, a 25-year agency veteran from Kentucky who has investigated previous accidents.

Federal officials would not speculate on possible causes, but they pledged a thorough investigation. They said the review could take months.

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