Mine where blast killed 7 had history of violations

MONTCOAL, W.Va. —Rescuers converged late Monday on a remote coal mine where seven workers were killed and 19 missing deep underground after an explosion rocked the operation that has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.

The blast occurred around 3 p.m. at Massey Energy Co.' s Upper Big Branch mine as nine miners on a vehicle that takes workers in and out of the mine were leaving, said Kevin Stricklin, agency administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health. Stricklin said a crew ahead of the vehicle felt a blast of air and went back in to find out what happened.

They found the nine workers, seven of whom were killed. Two others were hurt and are hospitalized, officials said.

Stricklin said two other nine-person crews and a safety inspector who had been working alone were believed trapped, perhaps about a mile and a half underground. Stricklin said officials don't believe a roof collapsed.

Nine rescue crews, usually made up of six members each, were at the mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, said federal Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere. It was unclear whether the mine was safe enough for rescuers to enter and look for the trapped men.

"We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing," said Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who confirmed the number of dead and missing in a statement.

Distraught family members were briefed and taken to a Massey building off-limits to the media.

MSHA officials didn't yet know what caused the blast, but federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the mine every 24 hours. That is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers labor union.

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels.

If concentrations are allowed to reach between 5 percent and 15 percent, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.

In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

In the past year, federal inspectors have cited Massey and fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious safety violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at the mine run by subsidiary Performance Coal Co. The violations also cover failing to follow the ventilation plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.

Two airtight rescue chambers near the blast site are stocked with enough food, water and air for the miners to survive four days. Another two chambers are a bit farther away. West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. However, Stricklin said much of the equipment near the missing men was likely destroyed in the explosion.

The company did not provide details on the extent of the damage at the mine that has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.

Blankenship said the names would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.

One injured miner was in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin said.

"We are preparing for other patients," she said.

The mine, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it's criss-crossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in one of the state's more heavily mined areas. Along the main two-lane road lined with emergency vehicles Monday night are several plants where coal is prepared for shipment by train.

The mine produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom work underground on different shifts.

Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but working to get back, according to his office. Chief of Staff Jim Spears went to the mine. President Obama spoke Monday night with Manchin to express his condolences and to offer any assistance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Massey Energy is a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., that has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company's Web site. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.