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Two probes of Montcoal mine started last year

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twice last year, federal mine safety officials overseeing the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine launched special investigations that are frequently the starting point for criminal probes, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

MSHA records list "preliminary special investigations" for the Upper Big Branch Mine, but do not explain how those investigations were resolved or if they were eventually referred to federal prosecutors.

Top agency officials refused to explain anything about those investigations.

"We are not sharing special investigation data with anybody right now," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator. "That's private."

Chuck Miller, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, also declined to comment.

Massey officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but company CEO Don Blankenship has argued this week that the Upper Big Branch Mine was well operated and perfectly safe.

"Any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that would be unfounded," Blankenship said during one appearance on statewide radio.

MSHA records list the preliminary special investigations from April 3 to May 20, 2009, and from June 11 to July 15, 2009. Computer records do not describe the topics of the investigations, the findings, or any actions taken as a result.

But MSHA's Special Investigations Division focuses on examining potential knowing and willful violations that would be appropriate for criminal prosecution. The division also examines cases in which miners may have been discriminated against for reporting safety problems, dust sampling fraud, and harassment of MSHA inspectors.

Massey is no stranger to criminal mine safety prosecutions.

In December 2008, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary agreed to pay $2.5 million in fines after pleading guilty to 10 criminal charges related to the January 2006 fire that killed two workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

Among other things, Aracoma Coal pleaded guilty to a charge that it failed to repair a key ventilation wall that had been removed, a violation that "resulted in the deaths" of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, according to court documents.

That case also included a felony charge in which Aracoma pleaded guilty to falsifying an entry in the mine's log books to make it appear that two different evacuation drills that were never conducted had actually taken place.

Under federal mine safety laws, knowing violations of actual mine safety standards -- such as dust limits or roof control rules -- can be prosecuted only as misdemeanors. The only felony criminal charges are for falsifying safety records that operators are required to keep.

And in 2007, another Massey subsidiary, White Buck Coal Co., pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of not conducting a required safety check. The company paid a $50,000 fine. Two mine foreman also pleaded guilty in that case, including one who told investigators that company managers told him to skip pre-shift examinations at the company's Grassy Creek No. 1 Mine in Nicholas County.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702. Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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