Massey mines draw scrutiny

442 citations, orders issued for safety violations in Ky., 2 other states since blast

ljohnson1@herald-leader.comApril 17, 2010 

Inspectors have cited hundreds of safety violations at Massey Energy coal mines in Kentucky since an April 5 explosion at one of the company's mines in West Virginia killed 29 employees, federal records show.

The 279 citations and orders in Kentucky, more than 80 of them alleging significant and substantial violations, were among a total of 442 issued to Massey underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia from April 5 through Thursday.

Of those 442, more than half — 222 — were issued to one Massey property in Kentucky, Freedom Energy Mining Co. in Pike County, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"That's off the charts. That is an extremely troubled mine," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who formerly worked at MSHA and Kentucky's mine-safety agency.

Oppegard said his review of records shows the Freedom Energy mine has received 404 federal citations or orders this year — nearly as many as the 458 in all of last year at the West Virginia mine that blew up.

Most of the citations the last two weeks at Freedom Energy, including some for allowing potentially dangerous build-ups of coal dust, resulted from an inspection that began the same day as the blast at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine.

That was a special inspection prompted by a report alleging hazardous conditions at the Pike County mine, Oppegard said.

That same day, MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin was on his way to Pike ville to meet with inspectors and Massey officials about safety concerns at the company's operation, according to spokeswoman Amy Louviere.

Stricklin was concerned with ventilation, hazard complaints and mine examinations at all Massey operations, Louviere said.

But after landing in Charleston, W.Va., that afternoon, Stricklin learned of the deadly blast 30 miles south of the city and canceled the Pikeville meeting.

Massey officials did not immediately respond to questions about the planned meeting or to an Associated Press inquiry about citations at company mines since the blast.

In the two weeks before the explosion, federal inspectors cited 73 violations at Massey's Kentucky mines. Of those, 21 were considered significant and substantial. That numbers has since jumped to 87.

Still, Stricklin told the Associated Press that MSHA hasn't been disproportionately targeting Massey since the blast or increased the pace of inspections.

"I didn't give any instructions to go and look at Massey mines," Stricklin said.

MSHA has tentatively blamed preventable accumulations of explosive methane gas and coal dust for the West Virginia explosion, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a blast killed 38 miners in December 1970 at Finley Coal Co. in Leslie County.

Inspectors visited more than 30 Massey mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia since the blast. Some, including Bent Branch Energy in Pike County, one of two Road Fork Development mines in Pike County, and Coalgood Energy in Harlan County, had no violations, MSHA records show.

But Stricklin sharply criticized Massey for violations found in the last 10 days at its other mines.

Those include conveyor belt problems at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in West Virginia, where a belt fire killed two men in 2006, and a build-up of coal dust on three occasions at the company's Solid Energy No. 1 mine in Pike County.

Stricklin called the dust accumulation "pitiful."

"You would think that personnel associated with Massey would be really more careful," he said.

Mines are required to keep methane below explosive levels with ventilation systems, and control coal dust by clearing it away and covering it with non-combustible material.

"There is an adage that a dirty mine is a dangerous mine," Oppegard said.

Massey is also facing its first wrongful death lawsuit in the April 5 blast, filed by by Marlene Griffith, a widow of one of the men killed, in Raleigh County, W.Va. The lawsuit also targets Performance Coal, the Massey subsidiary that operated the underground mine.

The lawsuit argues that Massey's handling of working conditions at the mine, plus its history of safety violations, amounted to aggravated conduct that rises above ordinary negligence.

Griffith and her husband, William Griffith, were planning to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary April 30, the lawsuit said.

Mark Moreland, a Charleston lawyer representing Griffith, said William Griffith was concerned about safety in the mine and had avoided serious injury during a rock fall there a week before his death.

Oppegard said if Massey doesn't change its attitude toward safety, its employees will be at risk. The company recently acquired more mines in Kentucky, he noted.

President Barack Obama this week ordered a sweeping review of coal mines with poor safety records and called for stronger mining laws following the Upper Big Branch blast.

Inspectors have cited hundreds of safety violations at Massey Energy coal mines in Kentucky since an April 5 explosion at one of the company's mines in West Virginia killed 29 employees, federal records show.

The 279 citations and orders in Kentucky, more than 80 of them alleging significant and substantial violations, were among a total of 442 issued to Massey underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia from April 5 through Thursday.

Of those 442, more than half — 222 — were issued to one Massey property in Kentucky, Freedom Energy Mining Co. in Pike County, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"That's off the charts. That is an extremely troubled mine," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who formerly worked at MSHA and Kentucky's mine-safety agency.

Oppegard said his review of records shows the Freedom Energy mine has received 404 federal citations or orders this year — nearly as many as the 458 in all of last year at the West Virginia mine that blew up.

Most of the citations the last two weeks at Freedom Energy, including some for allowing potentially dangerous build-ups of coal dust, resulted from an inspection that began the same day as the blast at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine.

That was a special inspection prompted by a report alleging hazardous conditions at the Pike County mine, Oppegard said.

That same day, MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin was on his way to Pike ville to meet with inspectors and Massey officials about safety concerns at the company's operation, according to spokeswoman Amy Louviere.

Stricklin was concerned with ventilation, hazard complaints and mine examinations at all Massey operations, Louviere said.

But after landing in Charleston, W.Va., that afternoon, Stricklin learned of the deadly blast 30 miles south of the city and canceled the Pikeville meeting.

Massey officials did not immediately respond to questions about the planned meeting or to an Associated Press inquiry about citations at company mines since the blast.

In the two weeks before the explosion, federal inspectors cited 73 violations at Massey's Kentucky mines. Of those, 21 were considered significant and substantial. That numbers has since jumped to 87.

Still, Stricklin told the Associated Press that MSHA hasn't been disproportionately targeting Massey since the blast or increased the pace of inspections.

"I didn't give any instructions to go and look at Massey mines," Stricklin said.

MSHA has tentatively blamed preventable accumulations of explosive methane gas and coal dust for the West Virginia explosion, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a blast killed 38 miners in December 1970 at Finley Coal Co. in Leslie County.

Inspectors visited more than 30 Massey mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia since the blast. Some, including Bent Branch Energy in Pike County, one of two Road Fork Development mines in Pike County, and Coalgood Energy in Harlan County, had no violations, MSHA records show.

But Stricklin sharply criticized Massey for violations found in the last 10 days at its other mines.

Those include conveyor belt problems at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in West Virginia, where a belt fire killed two men in 2006, and a build-up of coal dust on three occasions at the company's Solid Energy No. 1 mine in Pike County.

Stricklin called the dust accumulation "pitiful."

"You would think that personnel associated with Massey would be really more careful," he said.

Mines are required to keep methane below explosive levels with ventilation systems, and control coal dust by clearing it away and covering it with non-combustible material.

"There is an adage that a dirty mine is a dangerous mine," Oppegard said.

Massey is also facing its first wrongful death lawsuit in the April 5 blast, filed by by Marlene Griffith, a widow of one of the men killed, in Raleigh County, W.Va. The lawsuit also targets Performance Coal, the Massey subsidiary that operated the underground mine.

The lawsuit argues that Massey's handling of working conditions at the mine, plus its history of safety violations, amounted to aggravated conduct that rises above ordinary negligence.

Griffith and her husband, William Griffith, were planning to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary April 30, the lawsuit said.

Mark Moreland, a Charleston lawyer representing Griffith, said William Griffith was concerned about safety in the mine and had avoided serious injury during a rock fall there a week before his death.

Oppegard said if Massey doesn't change its attitude toward safety, its employees will be at risk. The company recently acquired more mines in Kentucky, he noted.

President Barack Obama this week ordered a sweeping review of coal mines with poor safety records and called for stronger mining laws following the Upper Big Branch blast.

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