The West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 25 workers and left another four unaccounted for in the worst mining disaster since 1984 had amassed scores of citations from mining safety officials, including 57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan.
The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Another Massey subsidiary agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines last year and admitted to willfully violating mandatory safety standards that led to the deaths of two miners. The fine was the largest penalty in the history of the coal industry.
The nation's sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009. The company paid what was then the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for the 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. The fire trapped 12 miners. Two suffocated as they looked for a way to escape. Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports.
The two widows of the miners killed in Aracoma were unsatisfied by the plea agreement, telling the judge they believed the company cared more about profits then safety. After the deal, the Massey subsidiary pledged a renewed focus on safety after the fines were levied.
But Bruce Stanley, the attorney who tried the Aracoma Mine accident case, had doubts. He told ABC News Monday there are a lot of similarities between the Aracoma mine and the one involved in this week's tragedy, and he has concerns about Massey's checkered track record on safety issues. Data kept by the Mine Safety and Health Administration show the Upper Big Branch mine has suffered three worker fatalities in last 12 years.
"One can only hope that the level of criminal neglect evident at the Aracoma accident was not repeated at the Upper Big Branch mine," Stanley said Monday night.
After the Aracoma accident, Massey Energy released a statement that said the company "is a recognized leader in safety innovation and performance and remains committed to working with federal and state agencies to fully understand the causes of the accident and to prevent a similar occurrence at Massey Energy or elsewhere in the future."
Monday night, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship released a statement saying, "Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families. We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies."
The company is well known in West Virginia, in part because CEO Don Blankenship grew to become a fixture in state politics, doling out thousands of dollars to candidates he favored – most of them Republicans. In 2004, he spent millions on advertising that attacked a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice, leading to the election of challenger Brent Benjamin.
Massey had a $70 million case before the state Supreme Court and, once elected, Benjamin made the controversial decision not to recuse himself because of Blankenship's support of him and to hear arguments anyway. Another member of the court hearing the case was Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. He later recused himself after photographs surfaced showing that he vacationed with Blankenship in the French Riviera.
When an ABC News reporter tried to interview Blankenship about the possible conflicts in the parking lot of a Massey Energy office in Belfry, Ky., Blankenship became agitated.
"If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot," Blankenship told the reporter before grabbing his camera.
Blankenship later told the Charleston Daily Mail he couldn't recall making any threats. "Quite frankly, I don't know what I said except that I know I'm never loud, vulgar or rude to strangers," he said.
The conflicts surrounding the state Supreme Court saga triggered a cascade of changes, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that called on judges to recuse themselves when major donors come before them in court, and a vote by the West Virginia legislature to adopt public financing of judicial campaigns.