An explosion at a West Virigina coal mine owned by Massey Energy at 4:30 this afternoon left six miners dead and 21 missing. From Ken Ward at the West Virginia Gazette:

A large number of West Virginia coal miners are feared dead or missing this evening following an explosion this afternoon at a Massey Energy underground mine in Raleigh County.

Emergency crews are still responding this evening to the incident, which initial reports indicate occurred at about 3 p.m.

Agency director Ron Wooten said his agency is still assessing the incident, which occurred at Massey subsidiary Performance Coal’s Upper Big Branch Mine-South near Namoa.

“We have received information that there are several unaccounted for, perhaps as many as 21,” Wooten said in a phone interview. “We have received a report that there are six fatalities.”

Ward also reports that the mine, which employs 200 people, has a poor safety record.

In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.

One miner was killed at the operation in a July 2003 electrical accident and another in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.

Massey Energy as a whole isn’t any better. Indeed, it’s one of the least safe mining operations that regularly risks the lives of its employees. In 2008 it paid the largest fine ever paid by the coal industry in the deaths of two miners in a fire in West Virginia.

On January 19, 2006 a belt line fire killed miners Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 47, at Massey’s Aracoma Alma Number 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered by inadequate fire extinguishers, fire house couplings which did not match the water line, and a lack of water in the lines. On December 22, 2008 Massey Energy agreed to pay $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties for the accident. It is the largest financial settlement in the coal industry’s history.

On Jan. 15, 2009 the Charleston (WV) Gazette reported that Aracoma widows Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield urged U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver to reject Massey’s plea bargain and fine for the accident.

Widow Bragg stated that it was clear “that Massey executives much farther up the line expected the Alma Mine to emphasize production over the safety of the coal miners inside.”

Wikipedia has more on Massey’s poor safety record.  Massey Energy is owned by global warming denier and conservative activist Don Blankenship, and has recently been the target of protests by environmental and other activists.

We’ll post updates as they come in, but you should also follow Gazette reporter Ken Ward on Twitter, and check the updates posted at WSAZ’s news page.