* Surprise visits by federal inspectors
* Violations on mine ventilation, combustibility
By Steve James
NEW YORK, Aug 24 (Reuters) - More than four months after the worst U.S. mining accident in decades, federal mine officials have uncovered safety violations during surprise inspections at four underground coal mines, the Mine Safety and Health Administration said on Tuesday.
“It is appalling that our inspectors continue to find such egregious violations, especially with the explosion at Upper Big Branch still fresh in everyone’s minds,” said Joseph Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.
The mine inspections in the last three weeks came as MSHA investigates the explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s MEE.N Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5 -- the worst U.S. mine accident in 40 years.
“MSHA will continue to target mines with enhanced inspections ... particularly at mines that display a disregard to miners’ safety and health,” Main said.
The federal agency said it carried out “impact inspections” recently at four coal mining operations in three states “where unsafe practices and conditions are suspected.”
It said inspectors commandeered company phones to prevent surface personnel from notifying workers underground of the inspections, which occurred during shifts when MSHA enforcement personnel were least expected.
“The inspectors found numerous violations including failure to follow the mines’ approved ventilation plan, inadequate roof support and accumulation of combustible materials,” it said in a news release.
“The conditions found at these mines ... underscores the importance of the program information bulletins on ventilation the agency recently circulated throughout the mining industry, as well as the need for the legislative reforms pending before Congress,” Main said.
As a result of the inspections, MSHA issued 27 citations and 11 orders requiring a plan to correct hazards at Wilcoal Mining Inc’s Tri-State One Mine in Claiborne County, Tennessee.
An inspection at K&D Mining Inc’s Mine No. 17 in Harlan County, Kentucky, resulted in 15 citations and five orders being issued, and inspectors issued 21 citations and 10 orders to Maple Eagle No. 1 Mine in Fayette County, West Virginia.
There was no immediate comment from Wilcoal or London-based Coal International Plc, which operates Maple Eagle. K&D Mining could not be reached.
MSHA said the visit to International Coal Group’s (ICO.N) Knott County LLC, Classic Mine in Knott County, Kentucky, resulted in 43 citations and one order.
There was no immediate comment from ICG. The company’s stock ended 3.4 percent lower on Tuesday, a day when most coal company stocks fell along with the broader market. (Reporting by Steve James, editing by Matthew Lewis)