In the months since the explosion, Massey critics have focused on the large number of violations of mine ventilation rules and coal-dust regulations cited at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the months before the disaster.
But MSHA records also include at least 16 violations of rules that require proper calibration of methane monitors. MSHA inspectors repeatedly found monitors that indicated incorrect concentrations of methane and that were not re-calibrated every 31 days as required, the records show.
At least four of those violations -- including two that were cited in September 2009 -- are being examined by federal prosecutors as part of their ongoing criminal investigation at Upper Big Branch, according to records obtained by the Gazette.
If investigators find poor maintenance of mine air monitors a culprit in the Upper Big Branch disaster, it won't be the first time such violations were found following deaths at a Massey Energy mine.
After two miners were killed in the January 2006 fire at the company's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, MSHA investigators found that the battery in a smoke alarm on the mine longwall section was disconnected.
"The unit was originally shipped from the manufacturer with the battery disconnected," MSHA said in its report on the Aracoma fire. "The instruction manual for this unit indicated the battery was to be connected prior to use.
"It was not determined if the battery had been connected during installation, or if the battery had been disconnected some time after installation," MSHA said.
MSHA also found a variety of other problems with the Aracoma Mine's carbon monoxide monitoring system, including the lack of alarms in the 2 Section -- where the miners who died had worked -- and a lack of training for workers who installed and operated the system.
Inspectors concluded the lack of training and the missing monitor in the 2 Section contributed to delays in efforts to evacuate the mine the evening of the fire. Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to a criminal safety violation for the lack of proper training.
But in September 2009, MSHA inspectors cited Performance Coal for not training Upper Big Branch workers how the same sort of mine "atmospheric monitoring system" works, records show.
"The lack of AMS training greatly increases the hazard of exposure to fire and/or smoke," the MSHA inspector wrote in that citation. "The operator has engaged in aggravated conduct by installing the AMS system without providing training. This violation is unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory standard."
That violation is also being examined as part of the criminal probe, records show.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.