But MSHA's Special Investigations Division focuses on examining potential knowing and willful violations that would be appropriate for criminal prosecution. The division also examines cases in which miners may have been discriminated against for reporting safety problems, dust sampling fraud, and harassment of MSHA inspectors.
Massey is no stranger to criminal mine safety prosecutions.
In December 2008, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary agreed to pay $2.5 million in fines after pleading guilty to 10 criminal charges related to the January 2006 fire that killed two workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.
Among other things, Aracoma Coal pleaded guilty to a charge that it failed to repair a key ventilation wall that had been removed, a violation that "resulted in the deaths" of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, according to court documents.
That case also included a felony charge in which Aracoma pleaded guilty to falsifying an entry in the mine's log books to make it appear that two different evacuation drills that were never conducted had actually taken place.
Under federal mine safety laws, knowing violations of actual mine safety standards -- such as dust limits or roof control rules -- can be prosecuted only as misdemeanors. The only felony criminal charges are for falsifying safety records that operators are required to keep.
And in 2007, another Massey subsidiary, White Buck Coal Co., pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of not conducting a required safety check. The company paid a $50,000 fine. Two mine foreman also pleaded guilty in that case, including one who told investigators that company managers told him to skip pre-shift examinations at the company's Grassy Creek No. 1 Mine in Nicholas County.