Still, in February, A.L. Lee reported finding cracked fittings on a third unit at another mine, and MSHA again recommended -- but did not order -- that mine operators have shelter manufacturers examine their units and fix any problems.
From May through July, additional reports from a contractor for A.L. Lee and by a Department of Labor lab both confirmed potential problems with fitting corrosion.
By September, state mine safety Director C.A. Phillips was preparing to issue an order to for the first time require mine operators and shelter manufacturers to inspect units for potential fitting corrosion. Phillips and other state officials were becoming especially concerned because similar brass fittings were used on all types of underground shelters, not just the A.L. Lee inflatable models.
At some point, though, coal industry officials raised concerns about the state's plans with both the governor's office and the Department of Commerce, which oversees the state mine safety agency.
Hamilton said the coal association had thought all along the January incident was an isolated one, and that state officials were giving the industry deadlines that were too tight to conduct inspections of all of their shelters.
"They sprang an awful lot of information on the industry in a relatively short period of time," Hamilton said. "Those concerns were expressed across the board."
But in a separate interview, coal association President Bill Raney said operators and shelter manufacturers had taken the situation very seriously from the start.
"Everybody has been checking these -- all of the manufacturers and all of the operators," Raney said. "We're well along the way."
Still, the governor's office told mine safety agency officials to put together a briefing to explain its findings and its planned actions to the industry.
Jacqueline A. Proctor, a spokeswoman for Tomblin, said the governor's office "did not intervene at the request of any organization" and has "full confidence" in Phillips.
Proctor said the governor's office routinely monitors enforcement actions by state agencies, and did so in this instance to ensure the order was clear and contained deadlines that industry would be able to meet.
But the additional meeting added to delays in action, and had the effect of putting off any formal action by the state until after the Oct. 4 general election, in which Tomblin faced Republican Bill Maloney, a Morgantown drilling company executive whose campaign promoted his involvement in a major mine rescue in Chile.
State officials had drafted one order dated Sept. 29 and shared it with mining industry lobbyists during a meeting last Friday. But at the industry's request, the order was rewritten to ensure previous inspections by manufacturers could count toward one mandated by the order and to allow waivers of inspection and repair deadlines.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said union officials only learned about the shelter problems in the last few weeks and were "troubled" by a lack of transparency on the issue.
Smith noted a similar lack of transparency or discussion with miners' advocates in the ongoing investigation of major problems with the CSE Corp.'s SR-100, the most widely used emergency breathing device in the coal industry.
"This is not the first time this has happened," Smith said. "We were again the last people to know."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.