Upper Big Branch mine forced to shut before

Work halted more than 60 times within past year

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WASHINGTON -- Before this week's deadly explosion, federal investigators halted work in the Upper Big Branch mine 61 times since the start of 2009 for safety concerns.

Upper Big Branch, near Beckley, W.Va., was the site of a mine explosion Monday that killed 25 miners. Rescuers continued Thursday in long-shot efforts to find four missing miners who might still be trapped.

A review of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records -- first distributed by the office of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. -- revealed the "withdrawal orders," though it was not immediately clear how long work was halted at the mine and in which areas.

The mine was cited by investigators for 458 safety violations last year, 50 of them severe, and the new revelations add to the evidence that the mine flouted safety standards. Upper Big Branch is operated by Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Virginia-based Massey Energy.

The head of the MSHA, Joe Main, has declined to answer questions about Upper Big Branch's safety record this week, saying he's focused on the rescue efforts.

But veteran Lexington, Ky., mine safety attorney and former MSHA staffer Tony Oppegard said he had never seen that many major violations and withdrawal orders in such a small period of time. He said the violations indicate knowing disregard for the rules.

"It's past the point of being a red flag and to the point of where you really have a crisis," Mr. Oppegard said, adding that MSHA legally could have sought a court order to shut the mine down indefinitely.

According to MSHA data, only one of the shutdown orders in 2009 was the most severe kind, in which an inspector found an "imminent danger."

The most common infraction prompting a shutdown -- 48 times last year and six times in 2010 -- was that MSHA inspectors found a violation similar to one that caused a previous shutdown.

Four times last year and once this year, MSHA found that the mine operator had failed to correct a violation in the required time period. Once in 2009, MSHA found two major violations within 90 days.

Since 2000, Upper Big Branch has faced a withdrawal order 101 times.

Various federal authorities have launched investigations into the cause of the explosion and possible failings on the part of mine operators and regulators.

Congressional hearings are a certainty, and President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Mr. Main next week in Washington to discuss mine safety policy in light of the accident, the deadliest mine disaster in a quarter-century.

"Clearly we must get to the bottom of what happened, how and who was responsible," Mr. Byrd said in a statement. "And we must and will hold those parties accountable. ... Whether it is wrong-doing by Massey, lack of enforcement by MSHA, or inadequacies with the original MINER Act [of 2006], action will need to be taken."

Staff writer Michael A. Fuoco contributed from Montcoal, W.Va. Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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