MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Following April's disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners died, NPR's investigative unit has been crunching the numbers. They looked at records for about 600 coal mines, and it turns out that safety citations are up by a third in the last four years.
Joining me to talk about this is NPR's Robert Benincasa - he conducted the analysis - and NPR's Howard Berkes; he's been reporting on the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Robert, I'm going to begin with you. If federal mine safety officials are issuing more safety citations, does that mean that coal mines are not as safe as they were a few years ago?
ROBERT BENINCASA: Well, the hope in 2006 was to make them safer after there were two significant coal mining disasters that year. So what the federal regulators did, was they added about 270 more mine inspectors. And with more mine inspectors, we have more mine citations for violating these health and safety standards.
NORRIS: So more inspectors, more violations. What kinds of things are they finding?
BENINCASA: Well, the most frequently cited violation is a buildup of coal dust. And this is a real problem in an underground coal mine because when - coal dust is this fine powder that's generated when they cut the coal out of the earth. And if it gets disturbed or tossed into the air, it can act as fuel in an explosion.
NORRIS: Now Howard, I want to bring you into this. I want to ask you about this. You and NPR's Frank Langfitt spent most of the last three months looking into the Upper Big Branch disaster. Is there a connection between that disaster and the data that Robert is describing?
HOWARD BERKES: Not directly, at least as far as we know, because there's really still no cause determined for the explosion at Upper Big Branch. But investigators do suspect that there was some kind of ignition source. It could have been a frayed cable, which is picked up in these violations. And it's believed that this ignition source, whatever it was, ignited methane gas, which occurs naturally in coal mines. Well, if the mines were not properly ventilated, the gas wouldn't have reached explosion concentrations.
And finally, the ignited methane can cause a small explosion, which throws the coal dust up into the air, as Robert explained, and that feeds an even bigger explosion. And the blast at Upper Big Branch was massive. It traveled around corners. It went about two miles, right out the entrance of the mine. There were people in the parking lot who were hit by the concussion.
This astounds mine experts, and some suggest it means that maybe there was too much coal dust laying around.
So, you know, the kinds of violations identified in mines across the country in this analysis could have been factors in the Upper Big Branch explosion. We don't really know for sure yet.
NORRIS: Last week, Howard, you reported that methane monitors on mining machines were disabled at the Upper Big Branch mine. These monitors detect dangerous levels of methane, and they shut down mining machines when concentrations get too high. Why doesn't that sort of thing show up in the citation records that Robert's been analyzing?
BERKES: Well because in coal mines in general, as mine safety experts have explained to me, a methane monitor that is disabled electronically, it's not necessarily visible to the mine safety inspector.
And the other thing is that as Frank Langfitt, our colleague, has reported, miners underground are often warned by company officials and other workers aboveground when a federal mine inspector shows up at the mine.
NORRIS: Robert, remind us of the safety record at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Mr. BENINCASA: Michele, that's one of the first things that we looked at after the explosion, and we found that Upper Big Branch had more than 100 citations and orders just this year. About a third of those were considered significant and substantial, which means that they were likely to lead to serious injury or illness.
And our listeners can go onto our website, npr.org, and they can look at the details of our analysis, as well as look up individual mines and sort them by the mine operator or by the state or however they like, and so that they can get the details on how many violations that inspectors have been finding at mines around the country.
NORRIS: A lot of detailed information there. Before we go, Howard, I understand that the CEO of Massey will be speaking at the Press Club tomorrow. Could you give us a quick preview of what we might hear from him?
BERKES: Sure. That'll be Don Blankenship, who's been under fire for safety practices at his company. He'll be speaking at the National Press Club. The topic is surface coal mining, but there'll be a lot of reporters in the room. They're going to ask questions about Upper Big Branch. They're going to ask questions about the safety record at Massey Energy. So it'll be very interesting to hear what he has to say.
NORRIS: The CEO has been on the hot seat for some time now. Is it surprising that he would speak to a room full of reporters at the Press Club?
BERKES: It kind of fits his personality that he would show up at a place where there's a room full of reporters, and be confident that he could handle whatever they'd throw at him.
NORRIS: Thanks so much to both of you.
BERKES: Thank you.
Mr. BENINCASA: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Howard Berkes and Robert Benincasa