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An NPR News investigation has found that the site of that deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia last week isnt the only Massey Energy mine with safety concerns.
Nine other Massey coal mines had high injury rates last year. Four had injury rates more than twice the national rate, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: The NPR News analysis shows that Massey Energy's litany of safety violations, citations and fines goes beyond the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died last week in the deadliest mine disaster in 40 years.
Upper Big Branch is among 10 Massey mines cited for safety problems last year more than 2,400 times, according to federal mine safety records. And Massey's long list of citations has some wondering whether the federal inspection system works.
Mr. BRUCE DIAL (Owner, Dial Mine Safety): Part of the strategy - I'd guess you'd want to call it - by the mine operators are, well, we're going to contest everything.
BERKES: Bruce Dial is a mine safety consultant and veteran federal inspector. In the last four years, he says, in the wake of the Sago Mine disaster, inspections, citations and fines increased.
Mr. DIAL: And it takes so long to get it through the review commissions, they don't end up paying fines until it's - oh, three, four, five years down the road.
BERKES: In fact, 16,000 citation appeals are pending, worth millions in fines. Massey Energy alone had more than $7 million in fines in the last five years at its high-injury mines, and it's paid less than a third of the fines so far.
Massey did not respond to NPR's request for comment, but said in a statement last week that its rate of violations at Upper Big Branch is consistent with the national average.
That's not true, according to Ellen Smith of "Mine Safety and Health News."
Ms. ELLEN SMITH (Editor, "Mine Safety and Health News): The industry average is actually .71, and that particular mine has a .94 violations per inspection day. So that mine is about 30 percent higher than the average, underground, bituminous coal mine.
BERKES: Smith thinks the problem lies in liability. Right now, she says, mine supervisors, foremen and mine companies as a whole can face criminal penalties for serious safety violations - but not company presidents or CEOs.
Ms. SMITH: There will be a different safety culture if they know that there's a chance that they might spend six months in jail, or they might have charges personally brought against them. But at this point, there is nothing in the law that would allow that to happen.
BERKES: The law does permit the Mine Safety and Health Administration to shut down a mine if there's a pattern of serious violations. But that kind of drastic action is rare. The agency also declined comment for this story, saying top officials were traveling to a memorial service for the miners killed last week.
Dennis O'Dell, of the United Mine Workers Union, compares the safety inspection system to driving drunk but without the threat of a suspended license.
Mr. DENNIS O'DELL (Health and Safety Director, United Mine Workers Union): And I can drive, drink. Ill get pulled over, contest it, until eventually I kill somebody or kill myself. And that's what's going on in the mining. Until we fix that, we're going to continue - those operators to drive, drink and kill.
BERKES: Mining companies say they have to challenge citations because the fines are far higher now. And before recent changes, they could negotiate reduced fines and sanctions with federally appointed mediators. Thats according to Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association.
Mr. LUKE POPOVICH (Spokesman, National Mining Association): When they removed an opportunity to contest these at a lower level, that created a positive incentive for operators to contest them the only way they could.
BERKES: Some of Massey's safety violations involve improper ventilation of methane gas, and excessive buildup of coal dust. And those are precisely the conditions that could have triggered last week's deadly explosion. But no cause is known for certain yet. The investigations are just getting under way.
And there was this news yesterday: As recovery crews prepared to remove the last of the bodies from the Upper Big Branch Mine, S&P Equity Research said the financial impact of this deadly mine disaster will be immaterial. Massey Energy stock, the advisory said, is again worth buying.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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