The Upper Big Branch Mine that suffered the most serious mining disaster since 1984 on Monday has received the most serious citations from the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in 2009 of all Massey Energy-owned mines in West Virginia. Data collected from MSHA shows that over the course of the last year, the Upper Big Branch Mine received 48 “unwarrantable failure orders,” far exceeding Massey Energy’s number two recipient of serious citations in West Virginia.
On Monday, 25 miners were killed and left four others trapped underground at the Upper Big Branch Mine. It is the worst mining disaster in the United States since 1984 and, if the four trapped miners are not rescued, would become the worst since 1970. The Washington Post reports, “[t]he cause of Monday’s explosion has not been determined, but a buildup of methane or coal dust was considered the likeliest culprit.”
The Upper Big Branch mine received 39 violations in 2009 citing a failure to plan for ventilation to extract methane and other chemicals. Fifteen of these were considered “significant and substantial.” In July of 2009, the mine received its largest monetary fine of the year ($66,142) for allowing the accumulation of combustible materials in working spaces. Upper Big Branch received 34 similar violations citing accumulation of combustible materials, 20 of which were determined to be “significant and substantial.”
Massey Energy has contested nearly all major citations issued against the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009 and has paid less than 20% of the fines levied against them. Of the top 100 fines levied against the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009, Massey Energy has contested or are delinquent in paying 85% of them. Upper Big Branch was also cited for 202 violations that were considered “significant and substantial.” Seventy-six percent of those have either been contested or Massey Energy is delinquent in paying them.
The only West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy with a recent problem with MSHA violations that even compares to the Upper Big Branch mine is the Ruby Energy mine in Mingo, West Virginia. Where Upper Big Branch received a total of 515 citations for fines totaling $897,325 in 2009, Ruby Energy received 573 citations with fines reaching $1,668,408 over the same period. The key difference is that Ruby Energy received 15 “unwarrantable failure orders” while Upper Big Branch received 48.
Serious violations have continued to occur at Upper Big Branch this year. The Charleston Daily Mail reported after Monday’s mining explosion that, “Two citations from January for not having a proper plan to ventilate the mine, extracting methane and other chemicals from the air, could cost Massey more than $130,000 in fines.”
All data was obtained from the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Web site. Data on mines, ownership and location were made available under the Open Government Directive (OGD). Mine safety data, while available online, was not available in an easily downloadable format.