The questions over safety standards at the Massey Energy Corporation's Upper Big Branch coal mine have begun. By April 7, it was reported that the company had been cited for 600 safety violations in less than a year and a half. Some of these violations were in connection with the failure to properly ventilate methane, the gas thought responsible for this week's massive explosion.
While it is common, the Associated Press reports, for large mines like Upper Big Branch to receive (and contest) hundreds of violations of safety regulations per year, experts in the area say most don't have as many serious infractions as the Upper Big Branch mine. At least 50 of those citations charge the company with "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials, or designating escape routes. "I've never seen that many for one mine in a year," said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News. According to the Mine Safety & Health Administration, the term "unwarrantable failure" constitutes more than ordinary negligence. The MSHA says, "it may be characterized by such conduct as "reckless disregard", "intentional misconduct", "indifference", or a "serious lack of reasonable care.""
This is not the first time safety issues have resulted in deaths at a Massey mine. The AP reports in 2006, two miners were killed in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. The company settled a wrongful death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, and its subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. was required to pay $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties. During that trial, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was cited in court testimony as suggesting two supervisors be fired for raising concerns about conveyer belt problems -- just before the belt caught fire.
Blankenship is known for his power and influence in the region. It was his money that put a West Virginia Supreme Court judge on the bench who then failed to recuse himself when a case related to Massey came before him. He ruled in the company's favor. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which then set a new standard for the recusal of judges.
Influence or not, Blankenship clearly feels the company is under fire. "It's natural that the enemies of coal would view Massey as the primary enemy," he said, defending the company's safety record.