Mine company faulted on safety issues, regulators say

By Jerry Markon, David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; A03

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.

Blankenship has declined to comment since Monday's explosion, other than to tell a West Virginia radio station that accidents are "unfortunately an inevitable part of the mining process."

The accident highlights the perils of mining in the competitive coal industry and the constant pressure on companies to meet expectations.

A Citigroup analyst report on the company in February said that "for the past five years, [Massey] has tended to set stretch targets that they have been unable to achieve." In 2009, partly because of the weak economy, Massey shipped only 36.7 million tons of coal, about 9 million tons less than it forecast.

Blankenship became president of A.T. Massey Coal Co. in 1992, then part of Fluor Corp. Massey Coal became Massey Energy Co. and began to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange on Dec. 1, 2000. Blankenship was named chairman and president.

He vowed to fix safety violations in a meeting with McAteer after the 2001 accidents, McAteer recalled, and the company's Web site today says: "S-1 means Safety First. Massey's safety innovations, developed and implemented over the years, demonstrate our continuing commitment to operating safe coal mines."

Blankenship is well-known in the industry for requiring a steady stream of production updates for each of Massey's mining operations, as often as every two hours -- an approach that industry experts called unusual. He personally reviews the updates and sends frequent notes to managers if rates have fallen, according to court records and interviews.

The company says that attention to detail has helped Massey grow rapidly over the years -- it now controls about 36 percent of the proven coal reserves in Central Appalachia. Tim Bailey, a Charleston attorney who has handled several mining industry lawsuits, including one filed against Massey, said Blankenship "is a complete micromanager. If your production blips off the screen, you will get a phone call from someone who can roll your head."

During the first 10 months of 2001, 13 miners were killed in accidents in West Virginia, six of them by falling rock. Eight of them worked at Massey-owned mines or for Massey contractors, said McAteer, who filed a report on the accidents to West Virginia's governor.

McAteer said in an interview that investigators found the company's safety practices "inadequate."

In January 2006, the fire along a conveyor belt at Massey's Aracoma Alma Mine in West Virginia killed the two miners. The investigative report, written by McAteer, blamed a malfunction along the belt -- and strongly criticized Massey for failing to take steps to prevent it, such as properly removing accumulated coal dust and installing carbon monoxide detectors. Rescue efforts were hampered by an absence of water, the report said.

"Conditions existed which caused the fire to burn, creating dangerous smoke and heat which resulted in the deaths," the report said. "These conditions should have been detected and steps taken to remove the risks, but they were not."

Three months earlier, Blankenship had told mine superintendents to "ignore" requests to build overcasts -- devices that are important for ventilating deadly gases from mines. "We seem not to understand that coal pays the bills," he wrote in the memo, which was quoted in McAteer's report.

Seven hours before the fire, court records show, a report sent to Blankenship noted that a section of the mine would not be in production for one day because crews were stabilizing the structure with blocks and timber. In response, Blankenship wrote that he wanted production to resume.

"Call in second crew . . . if need be," a copy of a handwritten note shows. "Stay on coal."

Some industry experts have faulted the Mine Safety and Health Administration for failing to do enough to prevent Monday's disaster, noting that inspectors served the Upper Big Branch mine with blizzards of paper violations but never sought to close the facility.

But efforts to strengthen the agency's authority have faced resistance in Congress. Though the first significant mine safety reforms in almost three decades passed after the 2006 Sago (W.Va.) mine blast that killed 12 workers, follow-up legislation the next year died in the Senate after a veto threat by from the Bush administration. It would have given the agency subpoena authority for the first time and permitted officials to stop production at a mine if a company failed to quickly address violations.

"How many times does the federal government need to fail before somebody on Capitol Hill gets it?" said Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light, an expert on federal regulatory policy. "We've got a systemic problem where we've got these breakdowns coming faster and faster."

Staff reporters Ed O'Keefe and Steven Mufson and research director Lucy Shackleford contributed to this story.

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