"I have talked to individuals who have been in coal mines or have loved ones who have been working in coal mines who will not be identified by name but will say that something is fishy here,'' Rahall said. "That there are corners being cut.''
Rahall didn't say whether he took action on the complaints, which he said came from at least three people. Rahall spokesman Blake Androff later backed away from Rahall's comments, saying the complaints the congressman was referring to had only been made since the explosion.
Last year, MSHA ordered the mine closed 29 times to correct problems found by inspectors, said Kevin Stricklin, an MSHA administrator in West Virginia. He did not know why each citation was issued or how long the mine was forced to close each time, but closure times can vary widely.
"Any time you issue a D order, it's a very bad condition,'' Stricklin said. "I don't want to call it unusual, but it's a serious condition.''
Forced shutdowns are not uncommon, especially since 2008, when federal officials cracked down following a string of mine accidents that left dozens dead.
While the stepped-up enforcement has produced more citations, it has also led companies like Massey to sidestep the harshest punishments by appealing the fines.
In 2005, the year before the Sago mine disaster that killed 12, mines contested just 6 percent of the violations they faced. That rate steadily climbed to 27 percent last year, the AP found.
Massey is still contesting more than a third of all its violations at Upper Big Branch since 2007, according to an AP analysis. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.
Upper Big Branch also has a history of violations for not properly ventilating methane.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has conceded that the explosion shows the mine was not completely safe, but he has insisted it was no more dangerous than comparable mines and maintains that Massey has a commendable safety record.
The industry has defended the practice of appealing its violations. Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association, has said in written comments submitted to Congress that it does not jeopardize mine safety. He did not return a call seeking further comment.
Safety officials warned Congress three months ago that the backlog of violations could undermine a crackdown on repeat offenders. A backlog of some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties is pending before a review commission. In 2009, companies protested roughly two-thirds of the $141 million in penalties assessed by federal regulators.
<I>Hananel reported from Washington. AP writers Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., Frederic J. Frommer in Washington and Lawrence Messina and AP videojournalist Mark D. Carlson in Montcoal contributed to this report.