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Met criteria for federal enforcement for ‘pattern of violations’
By Mike Kosnar and Kelly O'Donnell
updated 6:32 p.m. ET April 8, 2010
Parts or all of the mine where at least 25 workers died were ordered closed 61 times in the past 15 months, according to information from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The information was provided in a summary to several congressional lawmakers after the accident at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The summary has not been made public but was provided to NBC News.
Despite what experts said is an alarming number of so-called withdrawal orders, a total of more than 100 since 2000, federal regulators never took stepped-up action to cite the mine for a "pattern of violations" even though the mine met the criteria.
Withdrawal orders refer to shutting down a portion of the plant or the entire plant and removing all workers from that location.
According to the document, the mine agency did not take further action against mine owner Massey Energy Co. because the company eventually "successfully reduced its rate" of serious violations.
In five instances since 2000, inspectors issued withdrawal orders based on a threat of imminent danger that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical harm. One of those orders came as recently as December.
The document provided to lawmakers does not specify if the individual orders were complete or partial withdrawals of the mine, the length of the orders, or any other information that would shed light on each event.
The mine safety agency does not have the authority to shut down a mine unless it goes to court, but it can issue withdrawal orders that force miners to evacuate an area until hazards are eliminated.
Forced shutdowns became more common in the industry after 2008 in the wake of a series of deadly mine accidents. The Upper Big Branch Mine has been the subject of more than 100 withdrawal orders since 2000, but 61 of those were handed down in 2009 and so far this year.
Massey has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up, including two large fines assessed in January when federal inspectors found dirty air flowing into an escapeway where fresh air should be, and an emergency air system flowing in the wrong direction. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
President Barack Obama has asked federal mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused the latest disaster. The White House said Thursday that Obama will meet with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main.
Mike Kosnar is an NBC News producer; Kelly O'Donnell is an NBC News correspondent. This report contains information from The Associated Press.