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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.