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Massey safety record again in the spotlight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A month ago, Massey Energy hosted a "Safety and Environmental Innovations Expo" to show off ways the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant has improved mine safety and the environment.

Company officials touted Massey's record and said employees believe the company keeps them safe.

"We recently surveyed all of our underground workers and asked them, do they feel that the company is looking out for their safety," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said at the time.

"And we had a very favorable response of over 90 percent of the people [who] work for us feel that the company is, in fact, looking after their own safety."

On Monday, a huge explosion ripped through a Massey mine in Raleigh County, killing at least 25 workers in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in more than a quarter century. Two other miners were hospitalized and four more remain unaccounted for.

Recent MSHA data shows a dramatically increased number of violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where Monday's disaster occurred.

Federal citations and enforcement orders at Upper Big Branch doubled between 2008 and 2009 to more than 500. Fines assessed by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration tripled over the same period to nearly $900,000.

Coal production also tripled over that period, but hours worked by miners increased by only about 22 percent, according to a review of MSHA data.

And last year, more than 10 percent of the enforcement actions taken by MSHA at the Upper Big Branch Mine were for "unwarrantable failure" to follow safety rules, compared to about 2 percent at mines nationwide.

"That's a red flag that they have a serious safety problem and a lack of commitment to safety," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and mine safety expert in Kentucky.

Massey officials have not responded to inquiries about the safety record at the Upper Big Branch Mine, but company CEO Don Blankenship said in a news release about the disaster that, "Our top priority is the safety of our miners."

And in an interview with MetroNews radio, Blankenship said Tuesday that, "Any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that would be unfounded."

Four years ago, in January 2006, Massey's safety record became a major issue when miners Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg died in a fire at the company's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

In December 2008, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges, paid $2.5 million in criminal fines and another $1.7 million civil penalties in the largest government penalty ever in a coal-mining death case.

At least one Massey mine foreman has pleaded guilty as a result of the criminal investigation into the Aracoma fire, a probe that prosecutors have said is continuing.

And in the five years prior to Aracoma, at least 11 coal miners died on the job in mines operated by subsidiaries of Massey. In each instance, federal regulators cited Massey with violations inspectors said played a role in the accident. And in 2007, another Massey subsidiary, White Buck Coal, and two of its mine foremen pleaded guilty to criminal violations.

Over the years, non-union Massey has tangled repeatedly with the United Mine Workers union, at least in part over the company's safety record.

In a UMWA Journal article published after the Aracoma plea deal, union President Cecil Roberts said, "This mine was set up to be a death trap, and that's what it became. When you put production ahead of safety, tragedies like this are all too often the result."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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