CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal officials said Monday they are stepping up enforcement of ventilation requirements for underground coal mines following reports of major violations at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in an April 5 explosion.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued four memos to agency inspectors and the mining industry, emphasizing rules that require proper fresh airflow underground, ventilation control equipment, methane detection equipment and MSHA approval of airflow changes.
MSHA chief Joe Main said he has also instructed agency inspectors to "enhance enforcement efforts relating to violations of ventilation standards."
"Mine inspectors are being instructed to beef up enforcement of ventilation standards," Main said in a prepared statement.
In a news release, MSHA said it decided to distribute a mine ventilation "alert" based on congressional testimony in which family members of miners who died at Upper Big Branch "indicated that concerns over safety conditions existed at the mine prior to the deadly blast."
During a House Education and Labor Committee field hearing in Beckley in late May, miners' family members told of methane problems, buildups of explosive coal dust, and warnings to workers not to complain about such problems or risk losing their jobs.
Some family members also told lawmakers that MSHA had plenty of knowledge of these problems, but did little to help miners prior to the deadly explosion at Upper Big Branch.
"We absolutely looked to MSHA for leadership, particularly on safety issues, but MSHA has let us down many times," said Gary Quarles, a coal miner who lost his son, Gary Wayne Quarles, in the disaster.
Massey officials have said that their company does not put production ahead of safety.
Mine safety experts believe the April 5 explosion was likely caused by an ignition of methane gas, and made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust. Prior to the disaster, the Massey mine had been repeatedly cited for various ventilation violations.
Among other things, MSHA inspectors wrote up the mine for making ventilation changes without first obtaining agency approval for those changes.
In one of the four memos issued Monday, MSHA said it had recently cited at least one operator with a "flagrant violation" -- which carries heavier fines -- for making air-flow changes without prior agency approval. MSHA did not identify the specific mine or the company involved.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.