Mine disaster puts Massey in spotlight

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Investigators are trying to figure out the cause of an explosion that killed 29 miners at a West Virginia coal mine owned by Richmond-based Massey Energy Co.

The deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal represent the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970 when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.

Massey — a company known for keeping a low profile in Virginia — wound up in the center of a national media firestorm.  Much of the coverage focused on more than 1,300 safety violations at the mine since 2005, many of which the company has contested. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued more than 50 citations for violations in March, including one that addressed a plan for ventilation of methane. Another two citations were issued the day of the April 5 explosion. A Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., runs the Montcoal mine. 

Massey defended its safety record in a statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day. Media reports suggesting that the [Upper Big Branch] was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded.”

Massey says the Upper Big Branch mine has had less than one violation per day of inspection by federal mining inspectors, which is consistent with national averages. “Most of the citations issued by MSHA to UBB in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued,” Massey said.

Massey also announced plans to add coal production at other sites to help make up for lost production at the Upper Big Branch mine. The company said it had planned to ship about 1.6 million tons of metallurgical coal from the mine with an average price per ton of $91.

The company said it has mining equipment available to use at other mines, but changes to mine plans will need approval by agencies and authorities. Even with the plan, the company does not expect to make up for the loss of the mine’s the entire production.

The largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, Massey operates about 50 underground and surface mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.  In 2009, it employed nearly 6,000 workers and reported coal revenue of $2.3 billion. 

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