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Wednesday: Hopes Fading for Trapped Miners; Geithner to Visit China

W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin points to a map of the Upper Big Branch Mine on Wednesday. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.)

As rescue teams race Wednesday to locate four trapped workers from the West Virginia coal mine where a massive explosion killed 25 people Monday, the mine’s owner is under intense scrutiny over its checkered safety history.

Rescuers finished drilling the first of several holes to vent toxic methane gas from the Upper Big Branch Mine, however, the miners did not respond to sound signals sent into the mine. Safety officials said late Tuesday it would take at least 96 hours before the mine is safe enough for rescue teams to enter, dimming hopes the trapped miners will be discovered alive.

“The explosion was very violent, so their chances of survival are very low,” Don Blankenship, chief executive of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy Co., told the Wall Street Journal.

On its Web site, the company touts 2009 as “another record setting year for safety.” But as widely reported now, the number of citations issued against the mine by the Mine Safety and Health Administration “more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008, and the penalties proposed against the mine more than tripled, to $897,325.”

In the last month alone, the Big Branch Mine was written up more than 50 times for safety violations, with 12 of the citations related to ventilation and a buildup of deadly methane. The Washington Post reports that federal regulators and Congress plan to examine the safety history of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine.

Monday’s blast also represented a huge setback for an industry that had been making strides in worker safety. As Ellen Smith of “Mine Safety and Health News” put it to Jim Lehrer on Tuesday’s NewsHour:

“Two weeks ago, we were all down at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 40-year anniversary, enactment of the Coal Mine Safety Act. And we were also celebrating the fact that, last year, we saw the least amount of fatalities ever in the history of mining in the United States … we left there with a spirit of goodwill, and that things were coming around, that we were not going to see disasters like this. And this just comes as a shock to the entire community.”

See a NewsHour chart tracking the past century of coal mining deaths here.

Indeed, “this disaster was a huge test” of whether mining reforms have gone far enough, writes Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston Gazette Coal Tattoo blog:

“West Virginia rules require companies to track whether miners have entered a working section of the mine, but not exactly where they are on the section. By contrast, MSHA requires more specific tracking of where the miners are on the section — information that might be helpful right about now at the Upper Big Branch Mine.”

We’ll have more about the rescue efforts for the miners throughout the day.

Geithner to Meet With China’s Vice Premier

In a sign that China might be willing to bend on its controversial currency policy, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will meet with China’s vice premier, Wang Qishan, in Beijing on Thursday.

The officials are expected to discuss China’s policy toward its currency, which critics in the United States say the Chinese government keeps artificially low. The result, according to critics, means better exports for China at the expense of American jobs.

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