Critics say a surge of federal safety citations and revealing internal corporate memos all suggest that the company behind the Upper Big Branch mine – where 25 coal miners died Monday -- has focused more on generating record profits than on protecting its workers.
"It was surprising how much evidence there was of a general disregard for safety of coal miners," Bruce Stanley, a lawyer who battled Massey Energy on behalf of the widows of two dead miners, told ABC News Tuesday.
Over the last year, there has been a spike in fines for the operators of Upper Big Branch, many involving flagrant and repeated violations that were above the national average. Federal records showed the Massey Energy subsidiary received 548 citations in 2009 and 122 so far in 2010.
There were 58 last month alone, including almost daily citations related to proper ventilation or the dangerous accumulation of coal dust. J. Davitt McAteer, who once oversaw the nation's mine safety administration, said Tuesday that he believes regulators should have known there was a problem brewing. "That's a red flag. That's saying, 'wait a minute, something's gone wrong here,'" he said.
Federal mine safety officials said today that even with the continued and recurring problems over the last month, the law did not allow them to shut the mine down.
"You're asking if I had the ability to shut a mine down based on what I find and the answer is no," said Kevin Stricklin, who is a senior federal mine safety official.
But other mine safety experts say the law does provide a basis for shutting down a mine. McAteer explained that federal officials can close a mine if workers are placed in imminent danger, or if the mine is exhibiting a pattern of repeated violations that are putting people at risk.
Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor's mine safety administration show that in four of the past five years, injuries and unsafe incidents occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine at a rate above the national average.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has said in statements released in the wake of Monday's explosion that his company and its subsidiaries consider safety a top priority. On Tuesday morning he told ABC affiliate WCHS of Charleston, W. Va., Tuesday that it was too early to know what led to this catastrophe.
"There's plenty of opportunities to make a mistake and when you've got thousands of people working underground everyday they become accustomed to what they're doing and perhaps they become somewhat immune to the dangers," Blankenship said. "And whatever happened, we don't know what it is, but it certainly was a tragedy and it's not something we know how to avoid yet because we don't know what happened."
Massey Energy has had problems with safety at other facilities in West Virginia. The most notorious accident occurred in 2006, when 12 miners were trapped inside the Aracoma mine. The mine operator – another Massey subsidiary – had failed to provide a primary escape route for the miners, according to federal court records. Ten of them managed to reach the surface, but two others suffocated, unable to find a way out of the smoke.
Charges arising out of that incident brought Massey to court, where the company agreed to pay $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties, and plead guilty to nine counts of willful neglect of safety codes.