Federal regulators evacuated coal miners from portions of a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia Sunday after finding two dozen safety violations that could have triggered fires or explosions.
The surprise inspection at Massey's Randolph mine in Boone County, W.Va., resulted in 20 "withdrawal" orders for excessive coal dust, weak water sprayers on mining equipment, illegal use of mining machines and failure to properly ventilate areas being mined.
Water sprayers and proper ventilation help control sparks and explosive methane gas. Coal dust is an accelerant that can turn a small methane ignition into a massive explosion.
"The conduct and behavior exhibited when we caught the mine operator by surprise is nothing short of outrageous," says assistant secretary of labor Joe Main. "The conditions observed at Randolph Mine place miners at serious risk to the threat of fire, explosion and black lung."
Main also says some mining companies "still aren't getting it... despite the tragedy at Upper Big Branch last year."
In fact, the coal dust and water sprayer violations involve similar safety lapses that occurred at Upper Big Branch just before a massive explosion killed 29 coal miners in April of 2010, according to a preliminary assessment by federal investigators.
Federal inspectors found some of the same safety violations at the Randolph mine during a surprise inspection a year ago.
Twenty withdrawal orders in a single inspection is "significant," says Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), "especially in light of the fact that they have exhibited similar behavior in the past."
Withdrawal orders are issued when there is danger of injury or death and when the mining company's behavior is considered "aggravated conduct, constituting more than ordinary negligence," according to MSHA.
Massey Energy acknowledges the seriousness of the violations.
"We were very disappointed by the results of the inspection," says Shane Harvey, Massey's vice president and general counsel. "We are reviewing the situation carefully and have already disciplined several individuals."
Massey is a month away from a possible takeover by rival coal producer Alpha Natural Resources. The shareholders of both companies will vote on the merger on June 1.
Alpha has already announced it will fold some Massey executives into the management team of the combined companies. That includes Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins, who has managed the company while it has amassed one of the most criticized safety records in the industry. Adkins will jointly run Alpha's "Running Right" safety program with an existing Alpha executive.
Last month, Alpha spokesman Ted Pile told NPR, "We spent a lot of time ensuring that these [Massey executives] would be a good match with our ethics."
Below you'll find the citations and orders from federal regulators: