Federal safety regulators cite Massey for hundreds of violations found at Upper Big Branch

By Tim Huber, AP
Friday, September 24, 2010

MSHA cites Massey for hundreds of W.Va. violations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal regulators have accused Massey Energy of failing to fix a dozen safety violations at the West Virginia mine where 29 miners died in an explosion.

The alleged violations are among hundreds reported found in a routine inspection of the Upper Big Branch mine. The ongoing quarterly inspection is separate from criminal and civil investigations of the April 5 blast, the deadliest at a U.S. coal mine since 1970.

The majority of the violations were found outside areas involved with the explosion, Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere said Friday.

The agency’s online database lists 344 citations issued since the inspection began July 26.

On Wednesday, MSHA issued 12 orders closing areas where violations hadn’t been fixed. Withdrawal orders typically are reserved for more serious violations, but MSHA has not released details about the underlying problems.

A Massey spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Chief Executive Don Blankenship blasted the agency for the citations during a speech at an industry convention Tuesday.

“We need to try to figure out what happened that caused the explosion and then we need to figure out if there is any culprit or any wrongdoing,” Blankenship said, “rather than starting that there’s wrongdoing and starting writing hundreds of violations in other parts of the mine.”

MSHA routinely lists violations as well as information such as quarterly production totals in its online database. The agency has not publicized the results of the quarterly inspection, though it has held several media briefings about the civil investigation. Copies of the withdrawal orders are not available in the database and MSHA has not said which violations the orders involve.

Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said inspectors are heaping citations on the company. At the same time, MSHA isn’t giving four crews enough time to fix violations, which Harvey said often involve equipment in remote areas that still have no electricity.

“MSHA’s putting these tight time frames to fix them, to what purpose I don’t know,” Harvey said. “There’s no impact in terms of timing and getting them fixed.”

The number of citations and orders issued during at Upper Big Branch is relatively high. In August, for example, MSHA issued 195 orders and citations there, or about 2 percent of the 8,631 issued to all the nation’s roughly 400 underground coal mines.

Harvey called the sheer volume of citations at Upper Big Branch punitive.

“They’ve overwhelmed us with citations after the incident and, in my personal view, for a lot of things that they didn’t see fit to cite before,” he said.

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