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Massey cited after second explosion at strip mine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors have cited Massey Energy with creating an "imminent danger" following two explosions in less than a week at one of the company's sprawling surface mines in Southern West Virginia.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials issued the order to Massey's Progress Coal subsidiary on Nov. 15, after the second of two unplanned ignitions at the Twilight MTR Surface Mine in Boone County, government records showed Monday.

MSHA inspectors described the event as "an unplanned ignition or explosion of a blasting agent or explosion." It apparently occurred while an excavator was removing rock and dirt from a mining pit.

"This is the second ignition/explosion of this nature since 11-10-2010 while removing overburden with excavators," the MSHA order said.

No injuries were reported in either incident, but MSHA classified its enforcement action as an "imminent danger" order because of the "unknown nature of the cause/causes of this type of incident at this time."

"An investigation is underway as to the causes of this type of accident," the MSHA order said. "Until the blasting operations and explosives handling practices are deemed by MSHA to be safe, all blasting and loading of explosives are hereby stopped to ensure the safety of those involved in this mining procedure."

Neither MSHA nor Massey provided any immediate comment on the incidents or the enforcement actions.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey has been under increased scrutiny from regulators since April 5, when an underground explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County killed 29 workers.

CEO Don Blankenship has vigorously defended Massey, saying the company has a good record and never puts coal production ahead of mine safety and health.

"We all have errors; we all have accidents," Blankenship said last week in a more than two-hour meeting with media representatives. "But I'd say Massey is at the top of the list for at least trying to make things safer."

The Twilight Mine is a huge mountaintop removal operation, producing nearly 5 million tons of coal last year with about 370 workers, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.

In September 2003, two miners at the operation -- dozer operators William P. Birchfield, 37, and Rodney W. Sheets, 47 -- were killed when the transportation van they were riding in was run over by a huge dump truck. MSHA concluded the van was not in safe operating condition because a strobe light that might have warned the dump truck driver of the van's location was broken. Massey paid $30,000 in fines.

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


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