(CNN) -- The deaths of at least 25 workers in a West Virginia coal mine this week have turned a harsh spotlight on the safety record of the mine's owner, which has paid record fines for safety and environmental violations.
Virginia-based Massey Energy Co. has racked up millions of dollars in penalties in recent years. The Montcoal, West Virginia, mine where Monday's fatal explosion took place received 458 citations from federal inspectors in 2009, and more than 50 of those were for problems that the operators knew about but had not corrected, according to federal mine safety records.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration hit the company with nearly $900,000 in fines in 2009 and has sought more than $100,000 in the first quarter of 2010. Inspectors cited the operators more than 100 times in the first quarter of 2010, including six times for "unwarrantable failure" to correct violations.
"They had a doubling of the number of site citations from 2008 to 2009 and a doubling or a tripling of the penalties," said Davitt McAteer, who led the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. "What that suggests to you is ... that there are problems here and that those problems are not being addressed."
Massey Energy has paid less than $200,000 of the penalties assessed at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Montcoal and is challenging some of the penalties. Its CEO, Don Blankenship, told CNN that his company's facilities are "typically in better shape than others in the area or in the country."
"We would take great exception to the fact that someone would claim Massey's mines aren't generally safer than competitor coal mines," he said.
He said the company was "uncomfortable" with the number of violations reported, but said tighter enforcement has driven up the numbers of violations across the industry since the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 men in 2006 in Tallmansville, West Virginia.
"Certainly violations are a bad indicator, but they're not a sole source for judging safety performance," Blankenship said.
Massey Energy is the fourth-largest American coal producer and the largest mine operator in central Appalachia. It churned out 38 million tons of coal in 2009, 1.2 million tons of which came from the Upper Big Branch South Mine, and reported earnings of $497 million.
Its annual corporate "social responsibility report" says that safety is its No. 1 concern and that its employees "are the best-trained, most productive, and safest miners in the world."
But McAteer said on CNN's "American Morning" that "some companies, and this appears to be one, take the approach that these violations are simply a cost of doing business -- it's cheaper for us to mine in an unsafe way or in a way that risks people's lives than it is for us to comply with the statutes, comply with the laws."
Monday's explosion at the Upper Big Branch South Mine was the fourth fatal accident there in 12 years.
In addition, a 2006 fire killed two miners in the Alma Mine No. 1, operated by Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. Aracoma pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in connection with the fire and paid a record $4.2 million in fines and civil penalties.
In January 2008, Massey paid $20 million in fines for Clean Water Act violations at coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. Federal regulators accused the company of violating its Clean Water Act permits more than 4,500 times between January 2000 and December 2006, sometimes discharging more than 10 times the allowable amounts of metals, sediment and acids into rivers and lakes in those states.
And another Massey subsidiary paid more than $3.5 million in state and federal penalties after about 250 million gallons of coal sludge spilled into rivers and streams around Inez, Kentucky, in 2000. Federal investigators determined that the company could have prevented the spill.
Industry analyst Ellen Smith said the safety record of Massey mines has improved "as a whole" over the past few years, and three installations won safety awards in 2009.
"That said, there are troubling issues here at this particular mine where the explosion happened," said Smith, managing editor of the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News.
Smith said that what raises the biggest red flags at the Upper Big Branch South Mine, which employs about 200 miners, are "unwarrantable failure" violations, which include citations involving escape routes for miners and air quality ventilation, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
"One mine that we looked at for comparison purposes had two unwarrantable failure violations last year, but it had 500 miners underground. It was working a lot of hours," Smith said. "Another mine we looked at was a West Virginia mine, and I think they had six unwarrantable failure violations in one year, where this particular mine -- not Massey in general, but this particular mine -- had six unwarrantable failures since January."
Massey operates 44 underground and surface mines, and controls 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.
A post on its Web site touts the company's 2009 safety record, saying it "marked the sixth consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey's safety performance was stronger than the industry average."
CNN's Scott Bronstein contributed to this report.