CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors this week launched a major inspection blitz at dozens of Alpha Natural Resources mines after citing a burned conveyor belt at an Alpha operation in Wyoming County as an "imminent danger."
The inspections, which targeted 43 mines in three states, are likely the largest such effort aimed at a single company, and focused on former Massey Energy Co. mines that Alpha acquired when it bought Massey a year ago.
More than 100 inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration descended on Alpha operations in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky on Wednesday, five days after a May 18 incident involving a "burned belt" at the company's Road Fork No. 51 Mine near Pineville.
Violations were found during what MSHA calls "impact inspections," but neither the agency nor Alpha would say how many enforcement citations and orders were issued.
The inspection sweep is the latest in a series of episodes that have raised questions about Alpha's promotion of its "Running Right" safety program as the cure for repeated violations and deaths that plagued Massey's Appalachian operations.
"It's very troubling that there continue to be these problems," said longtime mine safety expert Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration.
Ted Pile, a news media spokesman for Alpha, confirmed that there was a "wave of inspections" at his company's operations, but downplayed the Road Fork incident. Pile said it "was not a life-threatening situation" and that the company acted "expeditiously and professionally" in responding.
Over the past year, Alpha has been under increasing scrutiny following its purchase of Massey after the April 2010 deaths of 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.
Just two days before the Road Fork conveyor belt incident, Alpha had issued its first-ever corporate sustainability report to tout what it said are its improvements at former Massey operations since taking them over. Alpha said it has spent tens of thousands of hours on advanced safety training of former Massey employees, and has seen improved safety performance as a result.
"We are keenly aware of the very real safety risks in our industry and the perception by many that coal mining is a dangerous occupation," Alpha said in its report. "We are working hard to change those perceptions by demonstrating improvements in our health and safety performance."
West Virginia political leaders have been eager to praise Alpha as an example of a good corporate citizen in the coal industry, offering the company as a contrast to Massey Energy and its outspoken chief executive officer, Don Blankenship.
In the past two weeks, however:
| The operators of an Alpha contract mine in Virginia were issued six enforcement orders that cited for their "unwarrantable failure" to comply with federal safety rules in the death of a surface mine worker.
| An Alpha subsidiary and five foremen were cited for safety violations in the investigation of the death of a miner at one of the company's Kingston underground mines in Fayette County.
| A longtime employee died in a three-story fall from an Alpha preparation plant in Boone County, the second of two Alpha fatalities -- the only two West Virginia mining deaths so far this year.