Affinity also got 35 closure orders, third-most in the U.S.

Edward Finney of Bluefield, Va., died Feb. 7 at the Affinity Mine when he was pinned under a hoist he'd been moving trash into. Hoists are used to move miners, equipment and supplies between the surface and the underground operation.

Miner John Myles of Hilltop was crushed by a scoop at the same mine on Feb. 19.

Federal records show MSHA had cited thee Affinity mine for some 65 violations between January and the February fatalities, for everything from failure to maintain mine and escapeway maps to allowing combustible materials to accumulate.

In March 2012, MSHA also listed the Affinity mine among three that had been caught giving illegal, advance warning that inspectors were onsite the month before.

Affinity is challenging the high-negligence citations. Though they have yet to be adjudicated, McCormick said, MSHA is using them as one of the criteria to take enforcement action a¿¿ a practice the National Mining Association is challenging in court.

"We're very committed to running a safe operation," McCormick said, adding that United gave MSHA a lengthy letter explaining its improvements at the Affinity Mine. Those include the voluntary installation of proximity detectors, devices that automatically shut down equipment when a person is too close.

"It's been more than 100 days since we had a lost-time injury at the mine," McCormick said, "and we believe that's attributable to a number of safety initiatives, including proximity detection. ... We thought it was the right thing to do to protect our employees."

Patriot said in a statement that it believes the Brody mine does not qualify for POV status, and the company intends to vigorously contest the finding.

Patriot acquired Brody Mining in December 2012 and since then, the mine "has made considerable and measurable progress toward improved safety and compliance," the statement said.

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