Surprise Coal Mine Inspections: Feds Target 57 'Problem' Mines

06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly 60 problem U.S. coal mines have been hit with surprise inspections aimed at preventing another explosion like the one that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, the nation's chief mine safety regulator said Wednesday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not immediately reveal how many problems were found during the weekend crackdown. A spokeswoman said that information is still being compiled.

The raids targeted 57 mines, including 23 in West Virginia and 14 in Kentucky and involved 275 federal inspectors, MSHA said. Eight of the mines belong to Massey Energy Co., a $4.17 billion company that ranks among the largest coal producers in the United States.

Investigators suspect methane gas and excessive coal dust caused the massive April 5 blast at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine.

"The purpose of these inspections is to provide assurance that no imminent dangers, explosions, hazards or other serious health or safety conditions and practices are present at these mines," MSHA director Joe Main said.

Rick Abraham, whose mine was on the inspection list, defended his operation and blamed politics for forcing an unnecessary crackdown.

"The problem in the industry today is the professionals are being brow beaten by politicians. The know they would be better off in a more workable atmosphere without the press of politicians and headline seekers," Abraham said. "The employees are on edge, everybody's on edge and it's from people who don't know what the hell they're talking about."

MSHA said it targeted mines with a history of serious violations and focused on rules covering methane, ventilation and efforts to control coal dust.

A National Mining Association spokesman declined to comment. Massey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the Massey operations on the list are the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, where two men were killed in a conveyer belt fire in 2006. Massey eventually paid $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties because of the fire. Also on the list was Massey's Tiller No. 1 mine in Virginia, which MSHA warned to clean up its act last October or face stricter discipline for having a pattern of serious violations.