After the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killed 29 miners last year, federal coal-mine regulators launched a new program of safety blitzes, showing up unannounced at mines, seizing telephones so people underground would get no warning, and fanning out in search of hazards.

Since April 2010, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducted 251 “impact inspections” in coal mines.

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Those safety sweeps have netted 4,530 citations for violations. At the same time, MSHA ordered 427 temporary mine closings to fix problems.

Two years into his job as the nation’s top mine regulator, MSHA Administrator Joseph Main says the safety blitzes and other initiatives he’s championed are building blocks for “the best foundation … for mine safety in this country.”

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MSHA also is moving ahead with proposed regulations to improve and tighten coal-dust monitoring to protect miners from excess exposure that can lead to black lung disease; new rules to crack down on operators with a pattern of safety violations; and additional action to prevent equipment from crushing miners.

After the carnage of 2010, in which 48 miners, including the 29 at Upper Big Branch, died in accidents, 2011 is on a track for a near-record low, with 17 deaths so far.

Since it instituted changes last year, MSHA notified 15 mines they have a potential pattern of repeat violations. Two of those mines, including Bledsoe Coal Corp.’s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County, ultimately ended up on a special watch list that allows agency inspectors to shut down working parts of those mines for every significant safety violation.

MSHA has set up a database so mine operators and the public can compare their safety records to the criteria for determining when a mine is nearing a “pattern of violations” designation.

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