The owner of a West Virginia coal mine where 25 miners died in the industry's deadliest U.S. disaster in a quarter century had been warned repeatedly of safety concerns there.
Federal records show that this year alone, investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited or issued safety orders for the Upper Big Branch mine 123 times. That followed 517 MSHA citations and safety orders for the same mine in 2009 that resulted in fines of close to $900,000 that year.
That's just one Massey Energy coal mine, and the numbers aren't unusual.
In 2009, MSHA wrote up a total of 173,928 mining violations industrywide that all together topped $141 million in fines. In 2008, during the Bush administration, the total was even higher: 198,700 violations with fines topping $194 million.
Violations at Upper Big Branch
The Upper Big Branch coal mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Company, is in the heart of coal mining country in Raleigh County, W.Va., about 30 miles south of Charleston. According to MSHA records, it had 195 employees as of 2009 and produced about 1.2 million tons of coal.
On Monday, an explosion believed to have been caused by a build up of methane gas shook the underground mine, killing 25 miners, injuring others and leaving four missing. Steve Smith, a survivor, described the explosion to ABC's "Good Morning America":
"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear and the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado."
A look at the mine's MSHA violations for 2010 shows the owners knew there were safety concerns well before the explosion.
As recently as March 30 — and each of the two weeks prior to that — MSHA inspectors had raised concerns about the mine's ventilation plan, which is required to be designed to control methane and breathable dust. The two highest single fines assessed for Upper Big Branch so far this year — both of which of are being contested by the company — were issued on Jan. 7 for $66,142 and $70,000, both related again to the ventilation plan requirements.
These are ongoing problems with coal mines, including Upper Big Branch, MSHA records show. The most common violation for underground U.S. coal mines this year — accounting for 2,278 violations so far, or about 11 percent of all violations in 2010 — is the accumulation of combustible materials. The second most common violation, with 1,107 violations so far, or 5.5 percent of the total for 2010, is meeting requirements for a ventilation plan.
Violators are being cited and fined, but that doesn't mean they are paying.
In February, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing into the backlog of appealed citations and fines pending before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. Some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties are in limbo, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main told the committee. The reason: Companies are now appealing over a quarter of all violations representing two-thirds of the total fines.
"The starting point for any analysis of the backlog is the obligation of mine operators to eliminate the conditions that lead to so many violations," Main said. "With so many citations and orders issued, it is imperative that mine operators improve compliance.
"If MSHA inspectors can inspect workplaces and find these conditions, mine management should be finding them as well."
Promises of Investigations
Massey Energy can afford safety precautions: Last year, the company made $2.7 billion and reported $104 million in income, or $1.23 per share. It paid CEO Don Blankenship over $11 million in salary and bonuses in 2008.
It is also aware of the dangers. In 2007, Massey was fined a record $1.5 million for 25 health and safety violations at its Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia, where two miners had died in a fire the previous year. At the time, Richard E. Stickler, the assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, said: "The number and severity of safety violations at the mine at the time of the fire demonstrated reckless disregard for safety, warranting the highest fine MSHA has levied for a fatal coal mining accident."
After the Upper Big Branch disaster, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declared:
"The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood."
Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Rep. George Miller, head of the House committee that oversees MSHA, also promised investigations.
Miller in 2008 had pushed for legislation that would have tightened safety rules for coal mines and required upgraded equipment, but his efforts failed in the Senate. Two years earlier, the deaths of 12 miners trapped after a methane explosion inside the Sago Mine in West Virginia led to some new requirements, including that mine operators install better communication systems.
"Over the past few years, we have met too many family members who have suffered the tragic loss of loved ones in a mine disaster. On behalf of the committee, we promised them that we would do everything we could to learn the cause of these tragedies and to keep miners safe. Today, we extend this same promise to the families and community dealing with a devastating loss," Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, wrote with U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.
Massey CEO Blankenship went to the mine and offered his condolences to the families of the miners today. His company's homepage was still topped with the headline: 2009 Was a Record-Setting Year for Safety.
UPDATE (April 10): The bodies of the four missing miners were discovered early today inside the Upper Big Branch mine, raising the death toll from the explosion to 29. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.