West Virginia Coal Mine Explosion: Many Questions, Few Answers

Monday's explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine, operated by Massey Energy, killed 25 miners; two miners survived the blast but are currently being treated in the hospital for injuries sustained. Four more miners remain unaccounted for. Although rescue efforts continue, hope is dwindling among officials and family members that the missing miners may have survived.

Around 3:00 p.m. on Monday afternoon, methane gas ignited 1000 feet below ground, causing the explosion. Workers leaving the mine hurried back to find some already dead and a few injured. Workers have not yet been able to remove all those killed in the blast, adding to the agony of many families waiting for news of loved ones.

Right now, the greatest danger is posed by methane gas, which is highly flammable. Rescue workers were forced to call off efforts yesterday afternoon when the gas became too concentrated and began to pose a threat to their own safety. Since then, they have been working tirelessly to drill ventilation holes into the mine, but it's a long way down -- and they've yet to register any sign of life from the four miners believed to be trapped.
As rescue efforts continue, authorities have been struggling to piece together a picture of what happened in the Upper Big Branch coal mine. The investigation, thus far, has returned a few answers, but many more questions regarding The Massey Energy Company, who owns and operates the mine.

West Virginia miners at Upper Big Branch have reported multiple evacuations in the past two months due to dangerous levels of methane. In fact, federal records indicate that Massey has faced multiple fines for ventilation problems already this year. According to the New York Times, the Upper Big Branch mine was cited more than 50 times in March for safety violations.

In 2009, Massey was issued more than 500 citations for Upper Big Branch and fines of nearly $1 million in penalty fees were proposed. Still, Massey executives have maintained that the mine was safe and that "every mine has violations." On its Web site, Massey boasts of a strong safety record and commitment to healthy work environments.

Regulators and those who have worked in the mine have been less enthusiastic about Massey Energy's record. New mining regulations instituted in 2006 should have prevented such an explosion. It remains to be seen whether these regulations were met and if negligence was the major cause of one of the worst mining disasters in recent history.