W.Va. mine has years of serious violations, officials say

Officials say rescue teams hoping to find four missing workers after an explosion in a West Virginia mine had to abandon their mission when they discovered signs of fire and smoke. An explosion in the mine killed 25 people earlier this week.
By Steven Mufson, Kimberly Kindy and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2010

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has ordered the evacuation of miners from parts of the Upper Big Branch coal mine 64 times since the beginning of 2009 because of safety violations, but federal regulators said the mine did not show the "pattern of violation" that would have allowed them to take harsher measures.

The orders to withdraw miners from the site, where at least 25 workers died in an explosion this week, included one for "imminent danger" because miners had to wade through 48 inches of water in one section, records show.

Tony Oppegard, a former federal regulator, said the number of safety violations is "off the charts." Oppegard, who represents miners dismissed for refusing to do unsafe work, added: "You're past the point of a red flag and you're really in a crisis situation." Last night, MSHA said that in the past year, the Upper Big Branch mine exceeded national averages in eleven citation categories and that for the most serious type of safety violation the mine had more than 11 times the national rate.

There were also problems with the mine's four-mile-long ventilation system. Even though it won the approval of federal regulators last October, it was shown in a test in March to be circulating less than half the volume of air intended to keep levels of combustible coal dust and methane within a safe range.

In an incident in January, the federal safety administration found that for three weeks a foreman did not take action after a citation noted that air was flowing the wrong way in the ventilation system.

The new details about the troubled safety record of the West Virginia mine emerged as experts sought to explain what might have caused the explosion Monday -- and why the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not take tougher action given the rising number of citations there.

President Obama will meet next week with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main to get their assessment of the cause of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in more than a quarter-century and their recommendations on preventing accidents.

At the mine, owned by Massey Energy, rescue workers waited most of Thursday for holes to be drilled to vent explosive gases so that teams could resume their search for the four miners still unaccounted for.

"This is still a rescue mission to us," said Massey's chief operating officer, J. Christopher Adkins.

The time spent by MSHA inspectors at the Upper Big Branch mine has increased every year since 2007, the agency said. Although the law requires MSHA to inspect underground coal mines at least four times a year, it can boost the frequency if needed.

This year, MSHA enforcement personnel have already spent 51 days and have logged 803 hours inspecting the Upper Big Branch site. In 2009, MSHA enforcement personnel logged 180 days and 2,999 hours at the Upper Big Branch mine.

"It's not only not normal, it's not acceptable," Oppegard said. "In my view, that mine should have been subjected to more aggressive enforcement actions than were taken by the agency."

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