Massey Energy: West Virginia Mine Explosion Site’s Checkered Past

This isn’t the first time that West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine has had safety issues.

An explosion Monday that left at least 25 miners dead (four are still unaccounted for) is the worst US mining disaster since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at a Utah mine.

Already, the West Virginia mine explosion is focusing attention on the safety record of Massey Energy, which owns Upper Big Branch and has been scrutinized for its safety record before.

“They are notorious,” says Michael Shnayerson, author of “Coal River,” a book that is critical of the West Virginia mining industry. “Routinely, they roll up more violations than anybody else by far.”

Some of those violations have been at the Upper Big Branch mine, which has been frequently cited for dangerous conditions. According to records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the mine had about 500 violations issued against it last year (many of which are being contested). Nearly 200 of the violations were deemed “significant and substantial,” and about 50 were tagged as “unwarrantable failure” to comply – among the most serious citations that can be issued.

Three miners have died at the mine in the past 12 years: one in 1998, when a support beam dropped bags of cement mix onto him; one in 2001, when part of a roof collapsed; and one in 2003, when an electrician was accidentally electrocuted.

The cause of Monday’s explosion is still unknown, but the Eagle coal seam at Upper Big Branch releases a large amount of methane gas. Buildups of methane frequently lead to explosions.

“It’s my understanding that [Massey’s] record has been improving. At the same time, this particular mine has some troubling statistics attached to it,” says Kathy Snyder, the Washington correspondent for Mine Safety and Health News. In particular, Ms. Snyder says, the 50 or so “unwarrantable failure” violations is an unusually high number.

“Obviously, MSHA had some concerns there,” she says. “The very fact that they wrote this large number of violations – and a large number were orders to pull miners out – indicates the seriousness of the situation. It indicates that federal regulators were attempting to address something that concerned them.” However, the previous violations had virtually all been fixed at the time of the explosion, Snyder adds.

Massey Energy was unreachable for comment, but its website claims that 2009 was their best year in terms of accidents and that their safety performance is better than the industry average.

“Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families,” said Massey chairman and CEO Don Blankenship in a statement after Monday’s explosion.

But critics of Massey say that the company – the largest coal producer in central Appalachia and the fourth-largest in the United States – frequently flouts regulations.

The most notorious accident at a Massey-owned mine was a 2006 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, which killed two miners. The company was found to have had multiple safety violations – including a broken fire alarm, a waterline with no water, and a broken fire sprinkler – that contributed to the deaths. Also, employees had removed and failed to replace ventilation controls in the area where the fire broke out, and they failed to provide additional ventilation controls leading to an escapeway.

At the end of 2008, Massey agreed to pay $4.2 million in fines and penalties, following a lengthy investigation by MSHA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a court case in which the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges. It is the largest settlement in the history of the US coal industry.