Coal Tattoo

Despite continued problems, Alpha touts safety

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There’s a news release out from Alpha Natural Resources this morning:

Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR), a leading U.S. coal company, today announced that seven affiliated operations have been recognized for their safety achievements in 2011. The Virginia Coal Mine Safety Board and Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy recognized the following Alpha-affiliated operations for their outstanding safety records:

— Big Laurel Mining Corporation’s Mine No. 2 received top honors for a large underground mine working approximately 174,000 hours without a lost time accident.

— Paramont Coal Company Virginia, LLC’s Deep Mine #35 was recognized as a large underground mine working approximately 144,700 hours without a lost time accident.

— Dickenson-Russell Coal Company, LLC’s Roaring Fork No. 4 was recognized as a small underground mine working approximately 80,500 hours without a lost time accident.

— Bluff Spur Coal Corporation’s Mine No. 1 was recognized as a large underground mine working approximately 137,000 hours without a lost time accident.

— Paramont Coal Company Virginia, LLC’s Lovers Gap/Butcher Knife Surface Mine was recognized as a small surface mine working nearly 40,600 hours without a lost time accident.

— Paramont Coal Company Virginia, LLC’s 88 Strip was recognized as a large surface mine working more than 153,200 hours without a lost time accident.

— Paramont Coal Company Virginia, LLC’s Red Onion Surface Mine was recognized as a large surface mine working nearly 126,000 Hours without a lost time accident.

Allen Dupress, Alpha’s business unit president for Virginia operations, said:

We are proud of the continued commitment to safety shown at all of our operations. These awards help validate all of the hard work our miners do every day. The 2011 Virginia Coal Mine Safety Awards were presented at each of the mine sites during the week of July 16th — 22nd.

Alpha is rightly proud of such performances.  But are such press releases much comfort to folks like the family of Jeremy Sigler, who died at one of Alpha’s West Virginia operations back in March? Do safety awards help the family of Clyde Dolin, who died at an Alpha operation in West Virginia in May? It’s no doubt true that safety is a priority for some coal-mining operations. Why isn’t a priority for all of them? Here’s what MSHA chief Joe Main said about that very point just last week:

Many mines operate every shift of every day, year in and year out, without a fatality or a lost-time injury. Mining workplaces can and must be made safe for all miners.

Of course, coalfield politicians and the coal industry sometimes go back and forth on this notion of exactly what the expectations for the industry should be — whether their goal really is to protection all coal operations at all mining operations all of the time, to truly ensure that every miner goes home safety to his or her family every single day after every shift they work. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, for example, significantly watered down his big talk about doing “all we can” to protect miners, as he pushed through an incredibly weak mine safety bill during this year’s legislative session.

As for Alpha, well, along with safety awards, the company has touted its “mine rescue dog” and proclaimed much success in turning around the terrible safety problems it inherited when it bought Massey Energy. But Alpha continues to right the release of information it submitted to U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin that might tell the public more about exactly what steps its taken to improve performance at those Massey legacy operations.

Remember, though, that the only two mining deaths in West Virginia so far in 2012 occurred at Alpha operations. Also so far this year, an Alpha contractor was cited for serious violations in a Virginia death, state officials have cited the company — and five of its foremen — in one of this year’s West Virginia fatalities, and serious questions remain about the conveyor belt incident at Alpha’s Road Fork mine.

Press releases about safety awards are fine, I suppose. But for coal industry defenders and Alpha officials, remember this story, published in the Gazette just the day after the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, recounting Massey’s similar boasting not so long before the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation:

A month ago, Massey Energy hosted a “Safety and Environmental Innovations Expo” to show off ways the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant has improved mine safety and the environment.

Company officials touted Massey’s record and said employees believe the company keeps them safe.

“We recently surveyed all of our underground workers and asked them, do they feel that the company is looking out for their safety,” Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said at the time.

“And we had a very favorable response of over 90 percent of the people [who] work for us feel that the company is, in fact, looking after their own safety.”