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West Virgina Mine Disaster Worst Since 2006

Seven coal miners were killed and 19 were missing Monday after an explosion rocked an underground mine in West Virginia, the mine owner said.

The blast occurred at a mine in southern West Virginia that was hit with $900,000 in federal fines in 2009 for about 500 alleged safety violations, Labor Department records show.

The mine disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch site is the deadliest in the U.S. since 2006, when 12 miners were killed at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

Rescue efforts were under way Monday night, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Nine rescue crews were at the mine Monday evening, but it was not clear if they had gone underground, the Associated Press reported.

Gov. Joe Manchin said late Monday he spoke with President Barack Obama and, "he has promised to make every asset available to help us."

With numerous miners potentially trapped underground, the explosion could be the first major test of new safety regulations adopted in 2006, mine-safety expert Tony Oppegard said. The regulations require underground coal mines to have rescue chambers equipped with oxygen, water and communications equipment where miners can stay while awaiting rescuers, said Oppegard, a former federal mine-safety official.

The rescue effort and investigation also will test the mine-safety agency under Joe Main, a longtime leader with the United Mine Workers union who took over the agency in October. Main had been head of occupational safety and health for the union before Obama tapped him.

Massey Energy is "a very virulent non-union operation," said union spokesman Phil Smith.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement, "We are working diligently on rescue efforts."

Mine rescues can be slow and treacherous because teams have to guard against being killed themselves in a second explosion, Oppegard said. "Your first responsibility is to protect the safety of the rescue workers," he said.

Underground blasts typically result from a build-up of methane gas or of coal dust. Both are released during mining operations and are highly flammable.

Federal inspectors cited the Upper Big Branch mine last Tuesday for an alleged violation of safety code covering mine-ventilation plans, records show. No fine has been proposed.

The mine produced 1.2 million tons of coal last year, federal records show, a huge jump from the 365,000 tons produced in 2008. The mine employs about 200 people. Massey, one of the nation's largest coal producers, earned $104 million last year on $2.7 billion in sales, its annual report shows.

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