Remember that energy production company disaster that caused a lot of employee deaths? No, not the one in the Gulf of Mexico, the other one, in West Virginia, at the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy. Turns out the negligence involved there by the employer may have been so great that the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation:

Federal prosecutors said Friday they are investigating whether there was “willful criminal activity” by the company that operates the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers died in an accident last month.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of West Virginia said in a letter that investigators are looking into possible criminal conduct by the mine’s operator, Performance Coal, and its directors, officers and agents.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press, asks the Labor Department to hold off pursuing dozens of civil cases against Performance for alleged mine safety violations.

Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine.

This is all fallout from a desiccated regulatory structure, battered by 30 years of nearly unbroken anti-government ideology in the executive branch. The mine had around 500 citations over a four-year period, and not only did they fail to improve the work environment, they fought out the citations to a draw. Some of these violations are three years old and more, without being fixed. The civil fines still in process have been put on hold until the DoJ probe is completed, as they could form the basis for the criminal charges.

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, will face a Congressional committee this Thursday.