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Company officials had worried about violations at mine before explosion

Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, second from right, and board directors speak in Charleston, W.Va., about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. They said they still do not know the cause.
Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, second from right, and board directors speak in Charleston, W.Va., about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. They said they still do not know the cause. (Associated Press)

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By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Massey Energy officials were so concerned about a "very large number" of serious safety citations at the Upper Big Branch coal mine last year that they dispatched a two-person safety team to work there full time, company leaders said Monday.

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In a news conference in Charleston, company officials also pointed a finger back at the federal regulators who had repeatedly cited them for safety violations before an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5.

They said the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had indirectly caused a reduction of fresh air getting to an area deep inside the mine by requiring the company to use a "complicated" ventilation plan that Massey engineers resisted. Federal officials responded by saying the changes they required were necessary to ventilate the mine properly.

Ventilation will be a critical issue in the investigation into the explosion. Experts think the blast may have been triggered by a buildup of gases, such as methane, or flammable coal dust inside the mine.

The Massey officials, including chief executive Don Blankenship, said they still did not know what triggered the explosion. They released new data showing that, in the minutes before the blast, foremen deep inside the mine had reported finding very low or nonexistent levels of methane.

"No hazards were found" by the foremen, said Massey Director Stanley C. Suboleski, who served on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission under the Bush administration. "And methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero."

Three weeks after the explosion, government investigators have not been able to enter the Upper Big Branch mine because it remains full of dangerous gases.

At Monday's news conference, Massey officials detailed their financial help to the families of the 29, including a plan to ensure that widows receive the equivalent of the lost miner's paycheck until they remarry or die. The company will also provide health benefits for 20 years and a scholarship for dependent children to attend a West Virginia college.

Company Director Bobby R. Inman, a retired Navy admiral and former director of the National Security Agency, defended the company against allegations that it puts profits ahead of safety. He called the charge a "big lie" originally spread by union officials and a plaintiff attorney.

But Massey officials did not offer many details about two important revelations: that the company had been concerned about repeated safety citations at Upper Big Branch, and that federal inspectors may have helped make the mine's ventilation worse.

The company said that, between April and October 2009, the mine had received 47 citations called "D Orders," the most serious type of safety violation. Because that was an unusually large number, the company dispatched two "safety professionals" to the mine.

The company noted that, in the period after that, the number of serious violations had declined. From November 2009 to April 4, the day before the blast, there had been seven such orders, the company said.


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