CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors found a string of safety violations at a sprawling Raleigh County coal mine in the months and days leading up to an explosion that killed 25 this week, including two citations the day of the explosion. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press paint a troubling picture of procedures at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday's explosion. Safety advocates said the mine's track record, particularly a pair of January violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine's history, should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators.
In the January inspection, regulators found that dirty air was being directed into an escapeway where fresh air should be. They also found that an emergency air system was flowing in the wrong direction, which could leave workers without fresh air in their primary escape route.
Terry Moore, the mine foreman, told officials that he was aware of one of the problems and that it had been occurring for about three weeks.
"Mr. Moore engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that he was aware of the condition,'' the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in fining the company a combined $130,000.
While records indicate those problems were fixed the same day, the mine's operator, Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to rack up citations until the day of the blast.
Records show one of the violations issued Monday involved inadequate maps of escape routes from the Upper Big Branch mine. Underground coal mines are required to have maps detailing escape routes, oxygen caches, and refuge chambers.
The other violation Monday involved an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.
MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin said he was "very confident'' the citations on the day of the blast had nothing to do with the explosion, in part because they occurred far away.
Neither violation was life-threatening, and the cable problem was corrected the same day, Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said.
Trouble had been building at Upper Big Branch for a long time. Violations in 2009 were roughly double the amount from any previous year, and the January citation involving Moore was one of at least 50 "unwarrantable failure'' violations assessed there in the past year, the most serious type of violation that MSHA can assess.
The January problems could have triggered an explosion if they weren't corrected, said Celeste Monforton, who spent six years as a special assistant to MSHA's assistant director and is now an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.
"It's definitely a big, big, big, big signal -- a red flag -- about major problems in the mine,'' Monforton said.
The most serious violations could have warranted a criminal investigation, said Tony Oppegard, a Clinton appointee who served as the adviser to the assistant secretary of MSHA for 21/2 years. Oppegard said regulators should have determined that the mine has a "pattern of violations,'' a rarely used distinction that can allow officials to shut down operations.
"Had it been on a pattern of violations, maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved,'' Oppegard said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes the mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, told the AP on Wednesday that he'd been hearing for at least two months from Upper Big Branch workers concerned about methane levels at the mine. Methane, a colorless, odorless gas common in underground mines, is suspected as the cause of the blast.