CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Massey Energy Co. says seven miners are dead and another 19 unaccounted for in an explosion at an underground coal mine in West Virginia.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement Monday that the company was working to rescue the missing miners. The company did not say whether any miners had been rescued.
State mining director Ron Wooten says the blast was reported around 3 p.m. at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.
One injured miner is in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin said. “We are preparing for other patients,” she said.
The mine is operated by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. It has caches of extra oxygen along emergency escape routes and airtight refuge chambers designed to provide enough air to keep miners alive for four days if they can’t make their way out, according to Randy Harris, an engineering consultant who oversees installation of high-tech gear.
Five highly trained mine rescue teams from Conso Energy and Massey were on the scene as well as part of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training team, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.
Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but working to get back, according to his office. Chief of Staff Jim Spears was headed to the mine.
“We’re uncertain as to what happened but we are working diligently on rescue efforts and we are in contact with all of the appropriate agencies,” Massey CEO Don Blankenship told WCHS TV.
Other deaths at mine
At least three fatalities have happened at the mine in the past dozen years.
In 1998, a worker was killed when a support beam collapsed, dumping bags of cement mix and other materials onto the man, according to a report from the federal Mine Safety & Health Administration. Federal investigators blamed poor welding and construction.
In 2001, another worker at the mine died after a portion of roof fell in on him, and an electrician died after being electrocuted while repairing a shuttle car there in 2003.
The mine produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. 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.
The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25 violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.
The United Mine Workers labor union said it has personnel nearby and would help non-union Massey if the company asks. The UMW said it also is ready to help families of workers at the mine. Massey is virulently non-union and CEO Blankenship’s television set with a UMW fired bullet in it still sits in his office.
In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Six were killed in the collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah in 2007.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. While not all mines in West Virginia comply with federal standards, all have systems that meet state requirements, engineering consultant Harris said.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the U.S. fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration documents show 18 of the deaths occurred in coal mines, down from 29 in 2008; and 16 were in gold, copper and other types of mines, down from 22 in 2008. Most involved above ground truck accidents on mine property, though some resulted from rock falls and being struck by machinery.