In the case of the Upper Big Branch mine 30 miles south of Charleston, the company which owns it, Massey Energy, has quickly come under scrutiny for a checkered history of violations stemming from not properly ventilating the methane in the mine.
Back in 2007, "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon reported from Harlan County, Ky., where the previous year six miners died in separate incidents. What Simon found was a string of negligence and unpaid fines, similar to the situation with Massey Energy today.
One federal mining safety official told "60 Minutes" that mines continue to operate despite not paying their fines.
Asked how operators get away with not paying their fines, the official told Simon, "Well, there are a few that do. My understanding, from what I've seen about, 15 percent of the debt goes uncollected."
But, as "60 Minutes" found out, the figure is much higher at many mines with fatal accidents. Almost 75 percent of the fines originally imposed on those mines have not been paid. The mines get courts to reduce the fines, and sometimes they just don't pay. Relatively few mines are prosecuted when they don't pay their fines.
As for Massey Energy, it has been previously cited for safety violations and was behind in paying penalties to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), reports CBS News investigative producer Laura Strickler.
The mine is operated by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co.
Among the violations according to MSHA:
- Roof Falls, which are cracking and collapsing of the mine sidewalls happened on Nov. 24, 2009, Dec.5, 2009 and Feb. 21, 2010 at Upper Big Branch mine.
- The mine violated the standard for ventilation as recently as March 30, and was also cited twice on March 23 and on March 17.
- There were violations for drill dust on March 25 and for air quality on March 23.
According to the MSHA, in 2010, the mine was fined $188,769 and has paid $2,676 to date.
More on the Montcoal Tragedy at CBSNews.com:
Watch "60 Minutes'" 2007 Report: The Widows of Harlan County: