On April 5, 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia exploded 1,000 feet underground, killing 28 coal miners. High methane levels were blamed for the accident, the worst in the United States since 1970, when 38 miners were killed in Kentucky. Now the Washington Post reports that authorities recently conducted 111 “blitz” inspections at dozens of mines across the country, and the list of violations was significant.

Massey Energy Company owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, as well as 10 of the mines targeted by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in this latest effort. About 2,600 citations for safety violations were handed out during this mass safety inspection. Of those violations, 45 percent were considered extremely dangerous. The MSHA targeted sites that had a known history of violations. What’s more, none of the mine operators have presented evidence of cleanups since the previous MSHA visit. Follow-up visits to at least two sites showed that conditions had worsened since the initial inspection.

Joseph A. Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. He told the Post, "We are striving to make our inspections more strategic, less predictable and more effective.” To do so, inspectors varied the time of their inspections, drove unmarked cars to the site, and even seized cell phones to prevent top-side workers from alerting co-workers down below to their presence.

In the meantime, the investigation is ongoing in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. Massey Energy was fined $382,000 for violations such as improper ventilation and lack of proper equipment. It is believed that a collection of methane, caused by lack of good ventilation, built up in the mine and was triggered by an unknown source.

Massey Energy is the sixth largest coal company in the nation and a dominant force in West Virginia. The company is under criticism for its reaction to the April 5 explosion, which at times lacked good communication with the victims’ families. Michelle McKinney’s father died in the explosion. As she told reporters, “They're [Massey Energy] supposed to be a big company. [The miners] took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us."

For further reading:

Surprise mine inspections yield 2,600 safety citations
Safety officials catch 45 percent of mines with "significant and substantial" safety violations.