CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors conducting a criminal investigation of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine are examining hundreds of violations, including some that occurred four years ago at the Raleigh County mine where 29 workers died in an explosion last month.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller confirmed the criminal inquiry - already widely reported in the news media for two weeks - in a letter Friday to lawyers for the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The letter, also signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, revealed that prosecutors are investigating potential charges related to violations that have been under appeal by Massey's Performance Coal Co. for years.
"A portion of the criminal investigation involves whether Performance Coal and its directors, officers and agents engaged in willful criminal activity at UBB," said the letter, sent to Douglas N. White, associate regional solicitor for the Labor Department.
In an attachment to the letter, Miller and Goodwin listed 44 cases that Performance has pending before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. They wrote to MSHA to ask the agency to seek a stay of the Massey appeals so that hearings on those civil cases do not interfere with the criminal investigation.
Government officials said the pending cases involve more than 500 citations and orders issued by MSHA between June 3, 2006, and the April 5, 2010, explosion for various safety violations, including inadequate roof support, ventilation problems and accumulations of combustible materials.
About 300 of the violations were classified by MSHA inspectors as significant and substantial, and more than 90 of them were alleged to be caused by the company's "high negligence or reckless disregard" for safety standards, officials said.
Mine operators can be prosecuted criminally for willfully violating health and safety standards, and mine managers can be prosecuted if they knowingly authorize such violations.
The letter was made public a day after an unrelated disclosure in U.S. District Court that MSHA investigators had found that a page was removed from a book where Performance Coal officials were required to record daily ventilation fan measurements at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
It is not clear if any daily measurements were removed or if the fan examination records were otherwise altered, but MSHA is investigating the matter.
"We do have a page that was ripped out," Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, said Friday. "It's something we're going to look into."
Stricklin said the fan examination book included entries for Sept. 29 and Sept. 30, 2009, but investigators found that a page between those two entries had been ripped out of the book.
"It may be a problem," Stricklin said. "We're going to look into it. It's not as big a concern to me as if the pre-shift examination was missing on the longwall section for two days prior to the explosion."
The missing page in the mine's fan examination book was first disclosed in a court filing by lawyers for the families of two of the miners killed in the Raleigh County disaster.