Dozens of federal mine safety inspectors descended into 43 coal mines in three Appalachian states Wednesday in a massive, one-day blitz targeting mines once owned by Massey Energy.
A spokeswoman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration confirmed the sweep Thursday but did not provide many details.
All the mines involved are in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky and are now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, which absorbed Massey Energy after a disastrous explosion killed 29 coal miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010.
The mines targeted for these surprise "impact" inspections represent 30 percent of all the coal mines Alpha now operates.
A source familiar with the inspections says they were focused on conveyor belts used to transport coal underground. The source is not authorized to discuss the inspections publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A fire involving a conveyor belt in Massey's Aracoma Alma Mine [PDF] in West Virginia in 2006 led to the deaths of two coal miners, corporate criminal charges against the company and more than $4 million in civil and criminal fines.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere confirms that Wednesday's inspection blitz was prompted by a recent incident involving a burning conveyor belt at Alpha's Road Fork No. 51 mine in Wyoming County, W. Va., which was also once owned by Massey.
That incident included smoke but no fire, according to NPR's source. MSHA decided to then quickly target the other former Massey mines for surprise inspections "because of the serious nature of the incident," according to Louviere.
According to MSHA records, Road Fork No. 51 was cited this week for a number of "serious and substantial" mine safety violations classified as "unwarrantable failures" considered "aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence." The citations involve fire safety procedures and equipment and regulations governing conveyor belts. But detailed descriptions of the violations are not included in MSHA records available to the public.
"We are still investigating at Road Fork, so it would be premature to speculate whether the circumstances are similar to what happened at Aracoma," Louviere says.
As for Wednesday's inspection blitz, Louviere adds that "no violations as serious as this one [at Road Fork No. 51] were found ... but the number and nature of citations and orders issued are still under review."
Alpha has made much of its "Running Right" safety program since its takeover of Massey last year. Thousands of former Massey employees have gone through Alpha safety training, and the company has pledged to improve on Massey's safety record, which was one of the worst in the industry. By some measures, the company's overall safety record has improved.
But late last year, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that Alpha has displayed "some troubling contradictions that merit a careful watch."
Some former Massey executives responsible for managing and overseeing some of the company's most troubled mines continue to work for Alpha.
Earlier this month, Alpha announced the creation of a mine safety and health foundation, which is part of a $209 million settlement with the Justice Department stemming from the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. The settlement kept the company from facing corporate criminal charges for the tragedy, which occurred before the Massey acquisition.
In the announcement, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said, "The safety of our employees is the highest value of our company, and mine safety and health is imperative to the success of our industry."
MSHA has staged a number of surprise "impact" inspections since the Upper Big Branch explosion, but none have focused on so many mines owned by a single company on a single day.
Update at 11:03 p.m. ET. Mine Owner's Comment:
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile has provided a company response:
"The situation at the Road Fork No. 51 Mine incident was not a life-threatening situation. When they detected smoke, our people immediately took the proper actions to assure the safety of all miners while the source was investigated. They did exactly what they were supposed to do proficiently and professionally. An incident like this, while troubling, is always investigated for root causes and for corrective actions that can be undertaken to prevent them from reoccurring in any of the mines in our system."
Pile also confirmed the inspection blitz Wednesday and adds:
"We were subject to more than 4,600 inspector days in the first quarter, so inspection activity is always high and that's probably the case for most underground coal mines."
Update at 10:55 p.m. ET. 'Slipping Conveyor Belt' Caused Evacuation:
Alpha filed a document with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday that provides more details about the conveyor belt incident that triggered Wednesday's blast inspections.
The incident at Road Fork No. 51 Mine on May 18 involved smoke generated by "a slipping conveyor belt." MSHA considered the situation so threatening that it issued what is known as an "imminent danger" order, forcing evacuation of that section of the mine. Alpha's SEC filing says no fire was discovered and no injuries resulted.