Coal company involved in deadly blast cited again

AP News
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Posted: May 03, 2011 8:22 PM
Coal company involved in deadly blast cited again

Troubled coal producer Massey Energy Co. has been cited for more than two dozen serious safety violations that could have caused a fire or explosion at one of its southern West Virginia mines, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said Tuesday.

Inspectors found the violations at Massey subsidiary Inman Energy's Randolph Mine in Boone County during a surprise inspection last Friday, the agency said. The visit was the latest so-called "impact" inspection targeting troubled mines.

MSHA started the inspections after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. The April 5, 2010, tragedy remains the target of criminal and civil investigations.

Copies of the citations provided by MSHA show inspectors found miners working without mandatory ventilation equipment for controlling explosive methane gas and coal dust. Inspectors also issued citations for allowing combustible materials to build up and running a mining machine with low water pressure to sprayers designed to control dust and prevent explosions.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey said it has meted out unspecified discipline to several miners.

"We were very disappointed by the results of the inspection," general counsel Shane Harvey said in a statement. "We will take all actions necessary to ensure that our operations comply with the letter of the law."

MSHA director Joe Main said, "The conduct and behavior exhibited when we caught the mine operator by surprise is nothing short of outrageous. Despite the tragedy at Upper Big Branch last year, and all our efforts to bring mine operators into compliance, some still aren't getting it."

The agency alleges Inman engaged in aggravated conduct, which could lead to stiffer fines as high as $220,000 for some violations. Inspectors issued withdrawal orders for 20 of the violations, meaning workers were required to leave until problems were resolved.

Main said the conditions could have caused a fire, explosion and put miners at risk of black lung disease, a chronic illness caused by inhaling coal dust that has killed an estimated 10,000 miners in the past decade.

"Our continuing challenge is counteracting the egregious behavior of certain mine operators," Main said.

The latest troubles come just a day after Massey reported its fourth consecutive money-losing quarter since the explosion and just a month before the company is to be acquired by Abingdon, Va.-based rival Alpha Natural Resources. The $7.1 billion deal is due to close after shareholder votes June 1.

The conditions MSHA says it found at Randolph are similar to those at Upper Big Branch before the explosion, which regulators say was caused by a small methane ignition that fed on excessive coal dust spread across much of the sprawling underground complex.

Massey's own inspection reports show wide areas of Upper Big Branch needed to be treated with pulverized rock just minutes before the explosion. MSHA also has said it believes the Upper Big Branch explosion was caused in part by poor water flow to sprayers that failed to extinguish a methane ignition sparked by worn teeth on the cutting head of a mining machine.

Massey has maintained the explosion was caused by an unprecedented buildup of natural gas that overwhelmed safety measures weakened by MSHA's demands for ventilation changes.

MSHA said six inspectors went through the Randolph Mine after capturing the phones to prevent workers on the surface from calling warnings to colleagues underground. Massey miners have testified that the company issued such warning, which are a federal crime, at Upper Big Branch. And an Upper Big Branch security official is under federal indictment for allegedly lying to the FBI about the practice and trying to destroy thousands of pages of security documents from the mine.