Coal deaths: More prayers, but where is the action?

May 14, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Turkey Mining Accident

Family members cry as they wait outside the mine in Soma, western Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Berza Simsek)

Maybe folks in West Virginia’s coalfields should be glad they’re not in Turkey, where the news is just unbelievably horrible:

Rescuers here battled on Wednesday to reach miners trapped underground after more than 200 were killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkey in decades. Despite the extensive rescue operation, a senior official said hopes of finding survivors were “dimming.”

The authorities said that the death toll had risen to 232 by mid-afternoon, the Associated Press reported.

More than 200 were thought to be still underground after an explosion in a power distribution unit on Tuesday set off a fire that was still burning on Wednesday. The official casualty toll was put at 205 dead and 80 injured — the highest for such a disaster since 263 workers died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in 1992.

“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters at this mining town some 75 miles northeast of the Aegean port of Izmir. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”

“We are dealing with an incident that might result with the highest worker loss ever in Turkey,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to Turkish news reports. “We still want to hope that miners have found small caves to hide in to breathe and survive.”

Of course, coal-mining disasters are preventable, even in Turkey, as one recent study concluded:

In summary, the cause and type of occupational fatality in the Turkish coal-mining industry suggests that many deaths could be prevented through the use of modern mining equipment as well as through tighter enforcement and regulation in the non-public mining sector.

Here in West Virginia, our mining industry likes to brag about how technologically advanced it is, while often bucking and delaying and picking away at any sort of rule that would mandate better life-saving equipment in our mines. And while the industry and political leaders talk a lot about how important mine safety is, we still see companies employing incredibly dangerous practices like the one that was going on Monday night when miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed at Patriot Coal’s Brody No. 1 Mine in Boone County:

The miners were performing “retreat mining” — in which workers back out of the mine, removing coal pillars that were left to hold up the roof — when pressures from the ground above the mine caused a sudden release of coal and rock material from the mine roof or wall, according to preliminary accounts from federal and state regulators and the company … An outburst, or a “bump,” is a sudden release of the roof, wall or even floor rock into an open area of the mine. Outbursts are different from roof falls. A roof fall is just what it sounds like: pieces of roof rock come apart and fall. Outbursts occur because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down …

Various studies have found that coal outbursts or bumps can be especially hard to prevent. But, the studies over many years have also shown, they are not natural occurrences and can be avoided or the risk reduced with proper mine planning and compliance with that planning. “Inadequate mine planning or incorrect design can increase the occurrence of bumps in underground coal mines,” says one 1991 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said that retreat mining or “pulling pillars” is “the most dangerous type of mining.”

“Compliance with the pillar removal plan is essential,” Oppegard said. “The plan must be followed religiously because even the slightest deviation can have devastating consequences. In almost every retreat mining fatality that I’m aware of, failure to comply with the pillar plan was the cause of the accident.”

Turkey Mining Accident

Rescue workers carry a rescued miner from the mine in Soma, western Turkey, early Wednesday, May 14, 2014.  (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

There’s some fascinating reporting out there from the folks at NPR News and from the essential Mine Safety and Health News regarding the Brody mine and MSHA putting that operation on a “pattern of violations” designation. Here’s this from NPR:

NPR’s review of federal mine safety data shows that the Brody mine was cited for 238 safety violations in the last 15 months and had a rate of violations more than twice the national average for underground coal mines. The company says that’s a 40 percent improvement in Brody’s previous violations rate.

The mine’s injury rate last year was more than three times the national rate and since 2007, Brody has had injury rates ranging from two to five times the rates for all coal mines. More than 300 Brody miners were injured since then. Last year, the mine was cited for underreporting injuries.

And:

Federal data analyzed by NPR shows that Brody has shown improvement in some significant categories of violations. But it had more safety citations considered highly negligent (122) last year than in any year since 2005 and more citations considered reckless (5) than in any year since 2008.

On 13 occasions last year, inspectors found conditions considered so threatening to miners they closed portions of the mine until corrections were made. That was another record for the mine. These are incidents involving what MSHA considers “unwarrantable failures” by mine managers to follow the law and protect miners.

The company was cited for: failing to inspect for excessive coal dust, which can feed explosions; failure to inspect for roof problems, which can lead to rock falls; and failure to file roof control and ventilation plans, which are supposed to anticipate and prevent rock falls and methane gas ignitions. Patriot is contesting those citations.

Meanwhile, Mine Safety and Health News explains:

In a public statement when the mine was placed on POV status last year, Patriot said the POV status was improper, since it only acquired Brody Mining on Dec. 31, 2012. MSHA shows a controller start date of Jan. 28, 2013.

“Many of the violations and the severity measure cited in the POV finding took place under the prior owner,” Patriot said in the news release.

But, the report says:

Whether or not Black Stallion/Patriot had any control at the mine while Brody was the “operator,” might end up being subject to Review Commission interpretation.

SEC documents, along with a third quarter 2007 Patriot earnings conference call involving Janine Orf, Director of Investor Relations for Patriot Coal, Rick Whiting, President and CEO, and Mark Schroeder, Senior Vice President and CFO, clearly show the executives referring to the mine as a
“Patriot” mine.

Schroeder told investors, “… at the end of 2006 a contract coal supplier unexpectedly terminated its agreement for metallurgical coal supplies to our Wells complex. To replace this loss we accelerated the buildup of our new Black Stallion Mine by almost a year.”

Whiting told investors, “We were still ramping up with the Black Stallion mine; we reached the fifth unit there, final unit I believe early in October. So as we moved through the third quarter we still weren’t at full capacity there and transitioning some operating sections around from different locations to get into more met-coal and better mining conditions.”

Orr was asked by Mine Safety and Health News to confirm who controlled the mine. She said, “Brody was a contract miner for Black Stallion prior to Dec. 2012. It was not owned by Patriot.”

When asked to clarify the statement, based on SEC documents, Orr said, “Patriot owns the Black Stallion mine and reserves, but until January 1, 2013 the mine was operated by a contractor called Brody. We purchased Brody December 31, 2012 and effectively took over management and operation of the mine at that time.

Meanwhile, here’s the statement issued yesterday by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

Joanne and I extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the two miners–Eric and Gary–who lost their lives in this tragic mining accident.  We ask all West Virginians to continue praying for them during this very difficult time for our mining community.

Clearly, the families of these miners deserve our prayers. But perhaps Gov. Tomblin has forgotten the second part of the Mother Jones quote.

 

 

6 Responses to “Coal deaths: More prayers, but where is the action?”

  1. Ted Boettner says:

    I am continually baffled by the lack of organized outrage at coal mining deaths in West Virginia. Why this hasn’t resulted in miners marching in droves on the state capitol is beyond me.

  2. heather says:

    Thank-you Mr. Ward for covering the horrific coal mine related disaster in Turkey. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the miners in Turkey and West Virginia. Please continue to keep us informed.

  3. Steve says:

    These are terrible tragedies that I’m sure will be found (through investigations) could have been prevented. But, I’m having trouble finding out in the media coverage, if is this Brody mine is covered under a UMWA contract, or is it non-union?

  4. Penny says:

    According to media coverage of the disaster in Turkey, some 20,000 people have taken to the street in a 24-hour strike: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/izmir-police-intervene-as-thousands-protest-turkish-mine-blast.aspx?pageID=238&nID=66494&NewsCatID=341

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Steve,

    Not sure what media coverage you are looking at, but you need to read your Gazette (story linked to in this post):

    http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140513/GZ01/140519765/1419

    “Brody Mine No. 1 is a nonunion operation that’s part of Patriot’s Wells Complex. Last year, Brody produced nearly 1 million tons of coal with roughly 300 workers, according to federal data.”

    Ken.

  6. Steve says:

    Thanks Ken, must have overlooked it.

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