April 15 2010 UPDATE – Since an explosion killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia, more information has been released about the mine's long history of safety problems. Federal documents show that the mine had the worst safety record of any underground coal mine in its county. Four separate investigations to look into the cause of the blast have been announced.
Over 1,100 pages covering more than 700 citations at the Upper Big Branch Mine have been released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). According to the documents, the mine's operator, Massey Energy, exposed workers to potentially fatal or disabling conditions almost 300 times since late 2008. Some of the dangerous conditions included:
The mine was shut down on 54 occasions since January 1, 2009 after persistent safety violations were found. Most recently, on March 2, MSHA removed miners for nine hours after finding that air was blowing through the mine at half the required volume. Air currents flush out methane and coal dust, which can ignite at high concentrations. High methane levels were found at Upper Big Branch after last week's explosion.
Four investigations will try to uncover what led to the deadly blast. They will be conducted by the MSHA; the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training; an independent panel convened by West Virginia governor Joe Manchin; and Massey Energy.
April 6 2010 ORIGINAL ALERT –Officials announced today that 25 people were killed in a methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, with four miners still missing. It's being called the deadliest US mine explosion since 1984.
An exact cause of the explosion hasn't been found yet, but the mine's operator, Massey Energy, a subsidiary of Performance Coal Co., has a long history of safety violations. The company was fined nearly $900,000 last year alone.
The accident rate at the Upper Big Branch mine has exceeded the national average in every year but one since 2002, according to federal records. Inspectors cited 515 violations of federal mining regulations in 2009, up from 197 the previous year. In the first three months of 2010, the agency found 122 violations.
Records show that the Upper Big Branch mine has received unannounced federal inspections every week since November. The most recent completed inspection, done on March 25, found problems with the mine's dust collectors. Other violations have included problems with the ventilation system and inadequate marking of escape routes.
Three miners have been killed at Upper Big Branch in work-related accidents during the past 12 years. One worker was electrocuted in 2003, another died in a roof collapse in 2001, and a third died following a beam collapse in 1998.