July 21, 2010
Contact:
Anna Christopher Bross, NPR


   

NPR NEWS ANALYSIS OF SAFETY CITATIONS AT UNDERGROUND COAL MINES:
VIOLATIONS HAVE INCREASED BY A THIRD IN THE LAST FOUR YEARS

COMPLETE DATA AND FULL NPR ANALYSIS AT NPR.ORG

An NPR News Investigation has found that citations for safety and health violations by operators of underground coal mines have increased by nearly a third since 2006, with federal mine inspectors focusing about equally on three main types of mining hazards. These latest findings are part of NPR's continuing investigation into the fatal April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

NPR's analysis included nearly 80,000 citations written last year alone, and found that an accumulation of combustible coal dust was the most frequently cited violation, accounting for more than one in ten citations. The analysis also found that three categories of problems – fire hazards such as the coal dust, ventilation issues and electrical problems – each made up about a quarter of the violations found by inspectors nationwide.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause if the Upper Big Branch explosion. Some mine safety experts suspect the blast was triggered by an ignition source, which could have resulted from an electrical problem. Methane gas ignites at certain concentrations and proper ventilation keeps the gas from reaching explosive levels. And coal dust fuels and spreads an explosion.

The complete analysis is available at NPR.org, which allows users to look at the violation rates for a specific company or by state. NPR correspondent Howard Berkes and computer-assisted reporter Robert Benincasa are explaining their findings in an interview this afternoon on All Things Considered (visit www.npr.org/stations for local broadcast times). Audio of the report will be available at NPR.org at approximately 7PM (ET).

Specific to the Upper Big Branch mine, Benincasa and Berkes report that the mine had more than 100 ventilation citations and orders this year alone, about a third of which were labeled “significant and substantial” – meaning the problems are likely to cause serious injury or illness. NPR’s analysis also highlights just how fragile coal mines are; about 10 percent of the citations last year involved falling rock and the roof of the mine falling. Such accidents accounted for 69 miner deaths in the last decade.

Berkes and correspondent Frank Langfitt have been extensively covering the mine accident and its aftermath. In May, NPR News exclusively reported that the FBI was conducting a criminal investigation of the accident. Last week, NPR reported an incident in which Upper Big Branch mine workers deliberately disabled a methane monitor. All of NPR’s archived reports on this disaster are available at NPR.org.