Coal Tattoo

Federal No. 2: Model mine under federal scrutiny


Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, right,  during a visit to Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine in northern West Virginia in August 2009.

We had an exclusive story in today’s Gazette print edition and online about major safety concerns at Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine up outside of Morgantown.

Federal prosecutors are actively investigating whether mine managers there falsified safety records to cover up explosive levels of methane in sealed areas of the underground operation.

This revelation is a bit inconvenient for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who visited the mine last year and touted its fine safety record, and for MSHA chief Joe Main, because this is a United Mine Workers operation that is frequently held up as an example of the best the coal industry has to offer.

At the time of the Solis visit, Tim Huber of The Associated Press wrote:

Patriot’s Federal No. 2 is regarded by labor, industry and regulators as a well-run, safe operation. Like other West Virginia underground mines, it already has added airtight emergency shelters, caches of oxygen and other improvements required by the state after a pair of high-profile accidents killed 14 miners in January 2006.

But Coal Tattoo readers were given this information:

Indeed, Federal No. 2 has for many years had a strong safety record. The mine lists no deaths going back to at least 1995. Its non-fatal injury rate has been better than the national average in 12 of the last 14 years, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

But the most recent quarterly results available on MSHA’s Web site — for the period from January through March 2009 — show a non-fatal injury rate that is more than twice the national average. That rate includes 20 injuries during the first quarter of the year. And other MSHA data includes a list of 10 more injuries in the second quarter — meaning more miners have been hurt at this operation during the first half of 2009 that were typically hurt in a full year going back more than a decade.

Coal Tattoo also reported:

Mine safety and health violations at Federal No. 2 are also on the rise, according to MSHA data.

For the decade 1995 through 2004, the operation averaged a violation rate of 37 violations for every 200,000 hours worked. Since then, Federal No. 2 has averaged 65 violations per 200,000 hours worked.

And how about this idea that Federal No. 2 was way ahead of the curve in improving its emergency equipment and practices in response to the Sago Mine disaster?

In addition:

And how about this idea that Federal No. 2 was way ahead of the curve in improving its emergency equipment and practices in response to the Sago Mine disaster?

Well, I took a look at the most recent quarterly inspection by MSHA. It began on July 1 and is ongoing. So far, MSHA inspectors have issued 27 citations.

Those citations included two violations of rules governing mine escape tunnelsfirefighting equipment, one violation of MSHA rules governing sprinklers,  and two violations of rules governing escapeway maps. (including not having required “lifelines” to lead miners to the emergency breathing device caches — a new requirement post-Sago), one violation of rules governing

Not for nothing, but the mine’s previous quarterly inspection, from April through June, also prompted two citations for violations of firefighting equipment rules and one for a violation of communications equipment rules.

I wondered in this blog whether Solis or Main asked UMWA workers at Federal No. 2 about this troubling statistics … we didn’t find out, because the Labor Department closed to visit — except for a press conference — to all reporters except one from the Wall Street Journal, who didn’t address these issues in her coverage.

West Virginia mine safety officials, including director Ron Wooten, were very open yesterday about the situation at Federal No. 2, perhaps at least in part because the federal criminal probe essentially halted any state investigation into the matter.

I’ve asked for an interview with Joe Main to ask him what’s going on now at Federal No. 2.  So far, MSHA has said Main won’t talk … I guess we’ll find out how much MSHA is on board with the Obama administration’s professed interest in open government and transparency.