A history of violations at Upper Big Branch mine
By Dennis B. Roddy and Vivian Nereim, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Upper Big Branch coal mine, where an explosion Monday killed 25 miners, has a history of serious violations that at points were five times more extensive than the national average, according to federal records.
The mine in Raleigh County, near Beckley, W.Va., was cited for 458 safety violations last year, with 50 of them listed as unwarrantable failures to comply — citations reserved under federal mining regulations for instances of willful or gross negligence.
Nationwide, an average of 2 percent of safety violations are unwarrantable failures. Slightly more than 10 percent of Upper Big Branch mine’s violations last year were unwarrantable failures.
Cecil-based coal producer Consol Energy Inc. rushed three teams to West Virginia Monday to assist at the mine.
Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement at 8:30 p.m. Monday:
“Our prayers go out to the families of the miners. We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing.”
The Upper Big Branch mine is owned by Massey Energy, a Virginia-based firm that faced a then-record $1.5 million fine after a fire at its Aracoma Coal Mine in Logan County, W.Va., in which two men became lost amid a wash of smoke because of missing safety walls.
The company later settled a lawsuit by the miners’ families. Aracoma, a Massey subsidiary, later pleaded guilty to criminal charges brought against it by the federal government.
At the time of Monday’s explosion, Upper Big Branch mine was facing more than $150,000 in fines for pending safety violations, after routine scheduled inspections resulted in more than 100 citations three times in a 12-month period.
Since July 2008, seven regularly scheduled safety inspections — inspections planned ahead of time and not the surprise or “spot” inspections also carried out by federal inspectors — turned up 614 safety violations, according to records of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
In the past year, the mine has been cited multiple times for an accumulation of potentially volatile coal dust, poor pre-shift inspections and problems with its ventilation and escape route plans.
As recently as March, the company had been cited for inadequate escapeway plans for its miners and accumulations of coal dust. In January, the mine amassed nearly $150,000 in proposed fines from MSHA after safety inspectors cited them for failure to maintain adequate air ventilation or escape route maps, allowing too much coal dust to accumulate and failure to provide adequate and clearly marked escape routes in the event of emergencies.
Internal MSHA records made available to the Post-Gazette Monday night also indicated that in 2006, Upper Big Branch released more than 1 million cubic feet of of flammable methane gas in a 24-hour period. Under federal safety regulations, that amount of methane discharge would have required a federal safety inspection for methane levels once every five days.
In the 1990s, the mine experienced one methane ignition incident that caused burns to a miner.
One former MSHA inspector with experience at Massey facilities last night said the accumulated violations racked up by Upper Big Branch suggested a failure in the entire system.
“It’s just a combination of stuff that had to catch up with them sometime,” said Minness Justice, who was the inspector at Massey’s Aracoma mine in the months before a fire there killed two workers.
Mr. Justice, who left MSHA after a bitter dispute in which the agency sought to discipline him over the Aracoma incident, pointed to a March 2009 citation and proposed $29,000 fine for an unwarrantable failure in its ventilation system. The ventilation system in a mine is crucial to removing dust and methane and providing a continuous flow of fresh air to the working face.
He said in the first quarter of 2010, the mine was cited 25 times for ventilation violations but 21 of them were listed as “not serious and substantial,” meaning they resulted in nominal fines.
“Inspectors have written it and written it and written it, but they didn’t write it with any authority,” Mr. Justice said.