Have a blast: OSM finds WVDEP lax in policing flyrock

August 17, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


Photo from U.S. Office of Surface Mining

Naoma, W.Va., resident Bo Webb has written repeatedly to politicians (and to the American public) about the blasting he has to live with from the mountaintop removal operation near his home. See some links here and here.

The coal industry typically downplays such complaints. So does the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which went so far as to issue a report in 2003 which said strip-mine blast is not “a significant issue” in need of agency attention.

But now, a fairly new report from the guys at the OSM Charleston Field Office outlines significant problems in the way the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is regulating blasting. The 18-page report focuses on citizen complaints about “flyrock” — rocks and boulders from blasts that literally fly off mine sites into nearby communities. The report, available here,  is dated March 2009, but it was not posted online until last month.

Among the more serious findings:

Detailed investigations by WVDEP are performed in few of the flyrock incidents the agency becomes aware of. OSM praised the WVDEP Office of Explosives and Blasting for its investigation reports. But, OSM found, OEB was involved in only 4 of 36 flyrock events during the period examined, from January 2004 to December 2007.

When WVDEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation performed its own investigations (rather than referring the matters to OEB), “the actions were inconsistent because of inspector’s varying degrees of expertise or guidance on procedure.”

OSM recommended that OEB “should investigate every flyrock event in detail to determine or require the company to determine the most likely cause(s) in order to devise a site-specific remediation plan.”

— WVDEP inspectors who cited companies for flyrock incidents typically ordered mine operators to clean up the off-permit material, instead of determining the cause and propsing corrective measures to prevent repeat incidents.

— OSM said that monetary fines for flyrock violations were “too low for the seriousness of the violations.” During the period examined, the median penalty was $1,200.

— Staffing issues “are a possible impediment” to strong flyrock enforcement. At the time of the OSM review, there were six blasting inspectors for the entire state. OEB was authorized to ahve 17 positions, but at the time of the report had five vacancies. (OEB, by the way, was created during the Underwood administration — nearly a decade ago — as part of an effort to reduce the damage from mountaintop removal).

— WVDEP does not track performance of the mine operator and contract employees it certifies to perform blasting at strip mines. Because of this, OSM was unable to identify the blasters or companies responsible for some flyrock problems. OSM said, “Having the ability to identify habitual offenders for enforcement purposes is critical to initiating suspension or revocation proceedings.”

Finally, OSM cautioned WVDEP that “blasting is the single most frequently occurring event at mines that has the potential to cause injury, death or property damage.”

OSM continued:

Due to the significant danger of flyrock, it is recommended that in all cases, OEB institute the cessation of blasting activity in the area where flyrock originates and adjacent areas until an investigation is completed an prescribed changes are implemented by the company to ensure there is a reasonable expectation that flyrock will not occur again from the same cause.

WVDEP’s response to that recommendation?

OEB does not feel it is necessary to issue an [imminent harm cessation order] or cease blasting on all flyrock cases. It is the inspector’s call as to whether or not the individual incident warrants an IHCO. However, OEB will take multiple incidents into consideration in determining if blasting should cease.

13 Responses to “Have a blast: OSM finds WVDEP lax in policing flyrock”

  1. rhmooney3 says:


    Blasting records are to be maintained at (or near) the surface coal mining operations — and maintained for three years.

    IF OSM was not able to determine who blasted, that means there were (are) inadequate blasting records. (A third-grader is able to check for adequate blasting records.)

    P.S. The likely causes of flyrock are: insufficent stemming, improper spacing of blast holes and/or insufficent explosives in the blast holes — using too much explosives is very rarely a cause of flyrock.

    Here’s a 2002 study by OSM:
    http://www.epa.gov/Region3/mtntop/pdf/appendices/g/blasting-complaints/blastingcomplaints.pdf (14 pages)
    The study entailed collecting and analyzing readily available data in Federal and State files on citizen=s complaints related to surface coal mine blasting. For the purpose of the mountaintop mining environmental impact statement, 708 complaints from West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee were extracted from the national study. The national study tabulated 1,317 complaints, with 338 complaints at one surface mine in Pennsylvania.

    Note: I was with OSMRE (1978-1995) after being an Ohio reclamation specialist (1975-1978).

  2. Cindy Rank says:

    Thank you OSM — at long last !!!

    Where have you been all this time !?!?

    Please don’t disappear or let DEP out from under.

  3. rhmooney3 says:

    A flyrock event is not a violation. Excessive flyrock — travels more than one-half the distance to the nearest dwelling or beyond the permit boundary — is a violation.

    Every blast has some degree of flyrock. (The OSMRE report did not convey the serverity of the flyrock “events.”)

    Excessive flyrock violations are only serious when there is ANY potential for risk to people or property — blasters are lose their certifications (temporarily or permanently) if they do not record and report excessive flyrock incidents. (Distance and degree (amount, size) of flyrock are to be noted on every blasting report.)

    People have been killed and occupied dwelling severely damaged by flyrocks so this is an extremely high-level concern — not something that should take months or even weeks to be properly rectified (when there is any possible danager to the public).

  4. Clem Guttata says:

    WVDEP’s response is worrisome. They don’t have proper records to know if there’s a major problem or not. They are understaffed. Do they even have a system in place to determine the level of reporting compliance?

    When told specifically they falling down on the job, their response amounts to: move along, there’s nothing to see here.

    A department dedicated to public safety would use a report like this to demand more regulatory tools and more funding for higher staffing levels and better staff training. It’s no wonder so many people are calling for a Federal take-over of the West Virginia DEP.

  5. Vernon Haltom says:

    The DEP will of course deny every problem because Gov. Manchin tells them to give the coal industry a pass. Few inspectors, direction to not issue citations, paltry fines, etc. etc. add up to a failed agency, and the best they can say is “Everything’s fine.” It reminds me of Randy Huffman’s comment about the “glitch” of DEP not catching $2 billion worth of Clean Water Act violations.

  6. Dave Cooper says:

    Heres a news clipping I have saved:

    Flying Rock Kills Mine Worker
    July 18, 2007 Lexington Herald Leader

    A mechanic was struck by a flying rock and killed Monday afternoon while working at an Eastern Kentucky surface coal mine. Bobby L. Messer, 40, of David KY, was working as a mechanic for CAM Mining LLC Mine No. 1 at Ashcamp in Pike County, said Holly McCoy, a spokesman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. McCoy said explosives detonated shortly after 4:30 PM sent rock flying. Messer ran for cover but was struck in the back of his head. His death was the second at a Kentucky coal mine this year.

    For those interested, check out the June 4, 1993 blasting incident at the Sugar Ridge surface mine north of Knoxville, TN which threw rocks onto the highway, killing 16-year old Louisiana tourist Brian Agujar as he was riding in a car on Interstate 75.

  7. rhmooney3 says:


    Yes, there have been deadly blasting incidents though most involve mining personnel — not the public — which is the jurisdication of MSHA, not OSMRE.

    Securing the Blast Site to Prevent Blasting Related Injuries
    (6 pages)

    Domestic consumption of explosives during 2003 was
    approximately 5.05 billion pounds and about 89% (4.5
    billion pounds) was used by the mining industry [USGS,

    One thousand one hundred and thirty-one blastingrelated
    injuries were reported by the mining industry
    during the period 1978-2003 [Verakis & Lobb, 2003 with
    updated data].

    On June 4, 1993, Brian Agujar was killed by a flyrock while riding with his parents on Interstate 75 in Campbell County, TN.

    The closest blasthole was within 75 ft of the Right of Way and225 ft from the I-75 pavement. This blast generated a large amount of flyrock. The I-75 traffic was notmonitored prior to the blast.Twenty-eight blastholes, in four rows, on a 18- by 18-ft pattern, 7-1/4-in diameter, were loaded withANFO. Each hole was loaded with 573 lb of explosive and stemmed with 11 ft of drill cuttings. Thelength of explosive column in each hole was about 32 ft. Unlike previous blasts, explosive charges werenot decked during this blast.The fatal blast was not designed according to the specifications approved in the permit document [Sheaand Clark 1998]. (more; see the above link)

  8. hollergirl says:

    There are more instances of fugitive flyrock damage than is mentioned here. It is hard to remember all of them over the past 10 years. I remember reading an article from a Kentucky paper where a family went shopping one day, returned home to find flyrock from a strip mine had demolished their home. I think it was a trailer.
    I also remember footage from the “60 Minutes” piece where community residents complained (Carlos Gore I think) about flyrock (he had saved it for show) that frequently landed in their yards and near their homes. This also happened in Sylvester to Jim Scarbro.
    These seem to be isolated incidents until we see the entire picture of danger here.

  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Dave, Bob Mooney, etc:

    In the case Dave Cooper cites, MSHA concluded the death was caused by the failure of the mine operator to follow proper blasting procedures. And in fact, many of the problems outlined in the MSHA report (http://www.msha.gov/FATALS/2007/FTL07c09.asp) are also the subject of OSMRE jurisdiction — not just MSHA.

    For example, MSHA found that:

    — The procedures in effect at the time of the accident did not ensure that all persons were either cleared from the blast area or were in shelters, especially when abnormal conditions were known to exist in the blast area.

    And that:

    — The fly rock resulted from the loss of confinement of the first series of blast holes because this series of blast holes lacked sufficient burden to confine the explosive energy.

    Dave and Bob also mention the terrible incident in Tennessee, which was noted in the NIOSH report that Bob linked to (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/pubs/pdfs/faflbas.pdf).

    As Bob noted, the TN blast was not done according to the law. And MSHA found violations by the mine operator that caused the Kentucky incident as well. See that report here, http://www.msha.gov/FATALS/1999/FTL99C04.HTM.

    When I was doing my Beyond Sago series in 2006, I ran into a number of reports like that going back quite a few years — at coal and non-coal mines.

    That report also notes a 1999 incident in Kentucky where a resident near a strip mine rode an ATV onto a mine access road and was killed by flyrock.

    So, 2 of the 6 incidents outlined in that report involved non-mine workers being killed by flyrock.

    The fact is that blasting at surface mines IS to be regulated under SMCRA, and violations of proper blasting procedures are absolutely under the jurisdiction of the state regulatory authority and of OSMRE — not just MSHA.


  10. rhmooney3 says:


    Yes — both OSMRE and MSHA regulated blasting on coal mining operations, as does ATF (purchasing, securing, handling) and DOT (transporting).

    No — MSHA does not address impacts beyond the defined mine area (which may or may not include public roads and areas) while OSMRE does not address injuries/fatalities to mining personnel, nor explosive storage and recordkeeping.

    OSMRE does require blast warning, signage, and securing areas from public access, but it does not regulate the protection of mining personnel themselves.

    Blasting operations are very serious and very expensive: overall, the safety record is remarkable with exception of major screwups like that one in TN. (In 1978, an Ohio landowner died in a coal pit because his red pickup looked like the foreman’s truck so the blaster had thought the pit had been cleared. )

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You’re misunderstanding — and in the process, I think — perhaps misleading folks who haven’t read the rules or the statute.

    The point is that both agencies — MSHA and OSMRE — have responsibility for ensuring that the blasting is done in accordance with the law, the rules and in a safe manner.

    While the responsibility for protecting workers’ safety rests with MSHA and the responsibility for protecting the environment and the safety of others is with OSMRE, the two jurisdictions overlap in terms of ensuring that the blasting is planned and carried out in a manner that leads to all of these protections being ensured.

    In other words, incidents that have led to these terrible deaths have been found to involve blasting problems that were violations under both programs. It doesn’t matter really which agency was responsible for protecting which person — what matters is that they both have responsibility for ensuring blasting is done properly.


  12. […] Have a blast: OSM finds WVDEP lax in policing flyrock […]

  13. […] at a time when mountaintop removal blasting is receiving increased attention, following the release of a federal report documenting problems with the way West Virginia polices blasting and the tree-sitting protest […]

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