By Mike Hall
AFL-CIO Senior Writer
The Massey Energy Co. mine, where 25 coal miners were killed and four remain unaccounted following an  explosion yesterday, was assessed nearly $1 million in fines for safety violations last year, including violations concerning escape routes and ventilation, according to federal records and news reports.
The mine is owned by Massey and operated by its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co.
Early indications indicate the blast was caused by highly explosive methane gas leaking from sealed-off areas of the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.—the same cause of the 2006  Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners. New federal mine safety rules enacted after the Sago disaster included tougher new requirements for sealing off worked-out areas.
 CNN reports that in 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed nearly $1 million in fines for more than 450 safety violations at the nonunion Upper Big Branch Mine, including penalties for
more than 50 “unwarrantable failure” violations, which are among the most serious findings an inspector can issue. Among those were citations for escape routes for miners and air quality ventilation.
According to  ABC News, Massey was fighting the MSHA fines, including those for
57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow the ventilation plan. The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch Mine….They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them.
MSHA records also show that in at least six of the past 10 years, the Massey mine’s injury rate has been worse than the national average for similar operations.
AFL-CIO President  Richard Trumka, a former Mine Workers ( UMWA) president and third generation coal miner, says, “The thoughts and prayers of America’s workers are with the families” of those killed and for the safety of the “courageous” rescue teams. He adds:
However, this incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct. Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line.
In 2006, a fire at Massey’s  Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, also in West Virginia, killed two miners. Ultimately, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and paid $2.5 million in fines related to that fatal fire. According to ABC, the two miners “suffocated as they looked for a way to escape.”
Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports. The two widows of the miners killed in Aracoma were unsatisfied by the plea agreement, telling the judge they believed the company cared more about profits then safety.
Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky, told  The New York Times, “Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields.” The Times notes a 2006 internal memo from Massey CEO Donald Blankenship.
In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.
“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.
Last night, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine, told reporters:
This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.
Meanwhile, the  Charleston Gazette reports safety officials are looking at methane that built up inside a sealed-off area or leaked through the seals as the cause of the blast. In 2006, methane from sealed-off areas caused the explosions at a Sago, W.Va., mine that killed 12 miners and also at the  Darby Mine in Kentucky where two coal miners were killed.
The new mine safety rules passed after the Sago and Darby disasters called for increased monitoring of air quality in active and sealed sections of the mines to avoid methane build up. The new regulations also required mine operators to install stronger barriers between active and nonactive sections of mines.
But, as Oppegard told the Gazette, “Seals can be deadly if they are not maintained and monitored properly.”
In a statement today on the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, Rahall says:
We will scrutinize the health and safety violations at this mine to see whether the law was circumvented and miner’s precious lives were willfully put at risk, and there will be accountability.
Re-Posted from the AFL-CIO Now Blog
Posted April 8, 2010 at 10:34 am, in From AFL-CIO