CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the days before and since the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, other Massey Energy underground mines in Appalachia were repeatedly cited for major violations of safety rules meant to prevent methane and coal dust explosions, government records show.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors cited the Massey operations for violations of federal standards for mine ventilation and for illegal accumulations of explosive coal dust. The citations were at least partly the result of special spot inspections and complaint investigations that appear to have been planned before the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Starting less than a week before the April 5 explosion that claimed 29 lives in Raleigh County, MSHA officials conducted special spot inspections and a hazard complaint inspection at Massey subsidiary Spartan Mining's Road Fork No. 1 Mine in neighboring Wyoming County.
Inspectors cited Spartan Mining for 25 violations in three separate inspections between March 26 and April 7, according to MSHA data. The violations included at least nine that cited the company for "unwarrantable failure" to comply with federal safety and health rules.
Among the "unwarrantable failure" orders issued by MSHA were three for ventilation plan violations and one for dust control problems. MSHA also issued one order last Thursday citing an imminent danger to miners' safety, but agency records did not provide any details.
And in Kentucky, MSHA inspectors cited Massey's Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 for 56 violations discovered in a series of inspections that started April 1 and continued at least through April 8.
Among the enforcement actions at the Freedom Mine, located in Pike County, Ky., were two orders that cited "unwarrantable failure" to control the accumulation of explosive coal dust, the MSHA records show.
The day of the Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA's coal administrator, Kevin Stricklin, was on his way to Kentucky for a high-level meeting with Massey officials about safety problems at the company's operations.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said Monday that the Upper Big Branch Mine was not on the agenda for Stricklin's meeting with Massey.
In the 15 months prior to the explosion, MSHA issued more than 60 withdrawal orders, forcing the company to remove miners from sections of the operation until hazards were remedied. But because of a complicated formula adopted internally by MSHA, Massey's appeals of those orders were used to block tougher enforcement action against Upper Big Branch.
Massey officials have said their mines are safer than the industry average, and company CEO Don Blankenship said that any suggestions the disaster was the result of "willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."
But Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety attorney from Lexington, Ky., said Massey's defense of conditions at Upper Big Branch doesn't make any sense.
"It doesn't matter whether you had more or less violations than the average mine," Oppegard said Monday. "This mine blew up. Mines don't blow up unless there were violations. This wasn't an act of God."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.