MSHA report provides new glimpse of Alpha belt fire

October 2, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Remember the conveyor belt fire at the Alpha Natural Resources Road Fork 51 Mine that prompted a major federal inspection sweep at Alpha’s mines? We had quite a bit of coverage of it here, here, here and here.

One thing that remained a little fuzzy from what we’ve previously been able to learn is exactly what happened as far as the evacuation of the mine. U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited the company, saying that mine management had not immediately evacuated workers. Alpha vigorously disagreed with that assessment, telling Howard Berkes at NPR:

Mine personnel followed the proper evacuation procedures when they first sensed smoke from the belt. It was actually a textbook evacuation that we train miners to do through mine emergency response drills.

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training appeared to take the company’s side on the issue.

Well, late yesterday afternoon, MSHA officials provided a copy of their investigation report on the May 18 incident, and it provides more details that we previously had seen about the timing of the evacuation and how the situation was handled. We’ve already been aware of the violations issued by MSHA and of the basic cause of this incident. But here’s the new stuff the report spells out about the evacuation:

On the morning of May 18, 2012, a non-injury belt fire occurred at the Road Fork #51 Mine … [MSHA inspector Joey] Wolford arrived at the mine at 7:45 a.m. Wolford entered the mine office and noticed a lot of unusual activity in the offices. There were several miners in the hallway and he overheared conversations about smoke underground. Wolford went into an office where the mine keeps the examination records. While in that office, Wolford heard [NAMES REDACTED BY MSHA] discussing smoke in the belt entry and secondary escapeway. [NAME REDACTED BY MSHA] was located at 2B belt drive when he encountered smoke coming from inby his location. [NAME REDACTED BY MSHA] called outside and reported the smoke to Selby Cook, General Mine Foreman. Cook dispatched Larry Lusk, Mine Examiner/Asst. Mine Foreman, to investigate the source of smoke. Lusk was located at # break at the slope bottom. Lusk traveled inby via the primary escapeway on a “four-wheeler”, searching for the source of the smoke.

At that time, Wolford went to the dispatcher’s office, opened the door, and asked Cook what was occurring. Cook stated that smoke had been reported in the belt entry and did not know where it was coming from. Wolford asked if the miners were being withdrawn and Cook answered, “No, they were trying to locate the source of the smoke.” Wolford informed Cook that he needed to get the miners out of the mine, to which Cook responded, “either he (Cook) was going to handle the situation or Wolford could take control.” Wolford informed Cook that a withdrawal order had not been issued, but he would issue an order to withdraw the miners, if the source of the smoke could not be located in a timely manner.

Several minutes passed and a crew of four miners [NAMES REDACTED BY MSHA] who were traveling toward #2 section, called outside to report thick smoke in the track entry near the 2C belt drive. The amount of smoke had increased to the level that they stopped traveling towards the #2 section. [NAMED REDACTED BY MSHA] left the mantrip and entered the primary escapeway with the intent to travel inby the fresh air and attempt to locate the source of the smoke. In the escapeway, they met Lusk, who instructed them to travel outby. [NAME REDACTED BY MSHA] who had remained with the mantrip, called outside and reported to Cook that the amount of smoke was increasing and requested instruction. Cook instructed them to don their self-contained self-rescuers (SCSRs) and escape via the primary escapeway.

Upon hearing that the amount of smoke was increasing and miners were still located inby, Wolford issued the 107(a) order verbally, indicating that every underground miner not necessary to locate the source of smoke must evacuate the mine.

Mine management initiated an evacuation of the mine. The miners utilized the primary escapeways leading to the No. 7 shaft and exited to the surface via a three-person emergency escape capsule.

By this account, the MSHA inspector arrived at the mine at 7:45 a.m., and according to MSHA records he issued the evacuation order at 8:10 a.m. As mentioned before, that doesn’t match the timeline in the state’s report on this incident.

Sure, we’re talking about what may seem like small amounts of time here — 25 minutes from the time MSHA arrived until an evacuation was ordered — but remember that at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, small amounts of time became crucial. In its report on the two deaths at Aracoma, MSHA concluded that the evacuation order wasn’t given until 28 minutes after the first carbon monoxide alarm sounded. Among the root causes MSHA identified in that instance:

Mine management failed to initiate and conduct an immediate evacuation on January 19, 2006, when a fire at the 9 Headgate longwall belt takeup storage unit presented an imminent danger to the miners.

And, Massey Energy’s Aracoma subsidiary pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that it failed to promptly evacuate the mine after the fire was discovered.

Alpha has appealed the citation issued to it at Road Fork for not immediately evacuating the mine. MSHA had levied a fine of $60,000. Asked if the company wanted to comment on the newly released MSHA report, Alpha spokesman Rick Nida had this to say in an emailed statement:

While Alpha disagrees with the characterization of the event as a “fire,” Road Fork #51 has corrected all violations referenced in the report concerning an event on May 18, 2012. Alpha has initiated a more robust training and inspection process on conveyors and belt systems. Road Fork #51 was inspected as part of MSHA’s August impact inspections and had fewer total issuances than any mine included in that round of inspections. Alpha continues to work pro-actively to assure all affiliated operations are safe and in compliance with federal and state standards.

It’s true that Road Fork did better than many other mines in MSHA’s latest round of “impact inspections.” Still, according to this agency list, MSHA inspectors classified more than a third of the mine’s cited violations as serious. And for Alpha, if you look more closely, you’ll also see that another of its mines, Republic Energy, had among the highest number of citation. At a third Alpha mine, Justice No. 1, roughly three-quarters of the cited violations were listed as serious.

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