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Performance Coal hit with 25 reporting violations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster have discovered more than two-dozen alleged violations of rules that require mine operators to report workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses.

After an audit of Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors last week issued 25 citations alleging violations of federal reporting requirements.

MSHA did not list any of the citations as "significant or substantial," which means the reporting violations did not pose a threat of injury to miners. Fines for the 25 reporting violations have not yet been assessed, and Massey has the right to appeal the citations and any monetary penalties.

A review of MSHA data show similar violations were cited by agency inspectors following previous mining deaths at Upper Big Branch in 2001 and 2003.

Reporting violations also were discovered by MSHA inspectors in audits conducted after seven other Massey mining deaths since 2000, according to a review of agency records.

"This is yet another unfortunate example of the callous disregard Massey Energy appears to have for even the most basic of mine safety laws and regulations," said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. "Massey management seems to think it can thumb its nose at simple reporting requirements like this, which only reinforces the notion that the corporate culture fostered by those at the highest levels of this company has been and remains production first, safety last."

In a prepared statement, Massey Energy said the company is reviewing the citations.

"At this time, we can say that we agree with some citations and disagree with others, but are not prepared to discuss individual citations at this time," the statement said.

The statement also said Massey officials "have been conducting a more thorough review of our accident reporting at all Massey operations.

"This review remains ongoing," the statement said.

On Friday, MSHA officials refused to provide copies of the reporting citations, making it impossible to describe the nature of each alleged violation in any specific detail. Agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere said MSHA would not disclose those records without a formal Freedom of Information Act request, which would take more time to process. Louviere said officials with knowledge about the violations could not be reached Friday to answer questions about them.

Such violations could range from not reporting accidents or injuries that occur to simply not properly updating the information to describe when miners return to work after accidents.

Federal rules require that mine operators report a variety of information, including data about mining accidents, numbers of employees and hours worked, and coal production. Data generated is used not only to monitor industry activity more generally, but to measure safety performance at particular mines and corporate parents and to target enforcement at troubled operations.

MSHA's general policy is to conduct a "Part 50 Audit" -- named for the section of the federal regulations involved -- after all coal-mining deaths.

After nine fatal accidents at Massey operations between January 2000 and the April 5 Upper Big Branch disaster, MSHA inspectors cited a total of 20 reporting violations.

A year before the disaster, MSHA cited Upper Big Branch for three other reporting violations. In each instance, Massey did not report "return to duty" information required by the regulations. The company paid $100 fines for each citation, but all three violations are among the hundreds of problems at Upper Big Branch being examined by a federal criminal investigation, records show.

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


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