CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the months before the deadly explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, company officials were engaged in major disputes with state and federal regulators over serious ventilation problems at the sprawling underground mine in Raleigh County.
Regulators had cited Massey's Performance Coal subsidiary in December for ignoring orders that it redirect potentially dirty air from a conveyor belt tunnel away from the longwall machine section where miners were working.
And last month, inspectors from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training recommended the violation for "special assessment" -- which carries heavier fines -- after Massey delayed in fixing the problem.
Also last month, federal inspectors cited Massey when they found airflow was half of what was needed to clean mine air and control levels of explosive methane underground.
That violation prompted one of more than 60 orders issued in the last 15 months in which U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials ordered miners withdrawn from parts of the Upper Big Branch Mine.
The dispute over ventilation of the mine, detailed in documents MSHA posted on its Web site Friday afternoon and in state records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, adds to increasing evidence of growing safety problems at the mine before Monday's deadly blast.
"The more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone, the angrier I get," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
"To me, one thing is clear -- for a company that has had this number of violations at just one coal mine -- one must seriously begin to question the practice and procedures of this particular coal company, and it needs the most serious scrutiny from Congress and the federal regulators," Byrd said in a prepared statement.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship continued to defend his company's safety record, issuing a letter to shareholders insisting that media reports suggesting the explosion "was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."