CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors found a string of safety violations at a sprawling West Virginia coal mine in the months and days leading up to an explosion that killed 25 this week, including two citations the day of the explosion.
Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Meanwhile, dangerous gases underground prevented rescuers late Wednesday from venturing into the Upper Big Branch coal mine to search for any survivors of the Monday explosion that killed at least 25 workers.
Crews drilled holes deep into the ground to release the gases. By evening, a federal safety official said the levels of lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen and methane measured at the top of the holes were steadily dropping. Officials by late evening planned to test levels at the bottom of the holes to determine if three teams of five rescuers each can enter.
"We just can't take any chances" with the lives of rescuers, Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had said earlier. "If we're going to send a rescue team, we have to say it's safe
for them to go in there."
Officials could not say specifically when rescuers might be able to go in, but if the readings at the bottom were good, they want them on the move as soon as possible, Stricklin said.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press paint a troubling picture of procedures the Massey Energy Co. mine. Safety advocates said the mine's track record, particularly a pair of January violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine's history, should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators.
In the January inspection, regulators found that dirty air was being directed into an escapeway where fresh air should be. They also found that an emergency air system was flowing in the wrong direction, which could leave workers without fresh air in their primary escape route.
Terry Moore, the mine foreman, told officials he was aware of one of the problems and that it had been occurring for about three weeks.
"Mr. Moore engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that he was aware of the condition," the Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in fining the company a combined $130,000.
While records indicate those problems were fixed the same day, the mine's operator, Massey subisidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to rack up citations until the day of the blast.
MSHA inspectors ticketed the mine Monday over inadequate maps of escape routes and an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.
Trouble had been building at Upper Big Branch for a long time. Violations in 2009 were roughly double the amount from any previous year, and the January citation involving Moore was one of at least 50 "unwarrantable failure" violations assessed there in the past year, the most serious type of violation that MSHA can assess.
The January problems could have triggered an explosion if they weren't corrected, said Celeste Monforton, who spent six years as a special assistant to the MSHA's assistant director and is now an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.
"It's definitely a big, big, big, big signal -- a red flag -- about major problems in the mine," Monforton said.
The most serious violations could have warranted a criminal investigation, said Tony Oppegard, a Bill Clinton appointee who served as the adviser to the assistant secretary of the MSHA for 2 1/2 years.
Oppegard said regulators should have determined that the mine has a "pattern of violations," a rarely used distinction that can allow officials to shut down operations.
"Had it been on a pattern of violations, maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved," Oppegard said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes the mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, said Wednesday that he had heard for at least two months from Upper Big Branch workers concerned about methane levels at the mine.
Methane, a colorless, odorless gas common in underground mines, is suspected as the cause of the blast.
"I have talked to individuals who have been in coal mines or have loved ones who have been working in coal mines who will not be identified by name but will say that something is fishy here," Rahall said. "That there are corners being cut."
Rahall didn't say whether he took action on the complaints, which he said came from at least three people. Rahall spokesman Blake Androff backed away from Rahall's comments, saying the complaints the congressman was referring to were made only since the explosion.
Last year, the MSHA ordered the mine closed 29 times to correct problems found by inspectors, said Kevin Stricklin, an MSHA administrator in West Virginia. He did not know why each citation was issued or how long the mine was forced to close each time, but closure times can vary widely.
"Any time you issue a D order, it's a very bad condition," Stricklin said. "I don't want to call it unusual, but it's a serious condition."
Forced shutdowns are not uncommon, especially since 2008, when federal officials cracked down after a string of mine accidents that left dozens dead.
While the stepped-up enforcement has produced more citations, it also has led companies like Massey to sidestep the harshest punishments by appealing the fines.
Massey still is contesting more than a third of all its violations at Upper Big Branch since 2007, according to an AP analysis. In the past year federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.
Upper Big Branch also has a history of violations for not properly ventilating methane.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has conceded that the explosion shows the mine was not completely safe, but he has insisted that it was no more dangerous than comparable mines and maintains that Massey has a commendable safety record.