Coal Tattoo

Obama Mine Explosion

The lights on the helmets are turned on at the end of a memorial service for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine, in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

We’ve talked before on this blog about the dangers of the sort of public relations that aims to show great success on making coal mines safer and healthier places for miners, and about the media coverage that falls into this trap.

I couldn’t help thinking about that last week, when The Associated Press made like it had some huge scoop with this story on a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announcement:

The number of chronic safety violators among mine operators has fallen sharply in recent years, according to government figures released Thursday …

The government puts repeat safety offenders on its Pattern of Violations, or POV, list, which is reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety and health of miners. A POV designation means that if a federal inspector were to find another significant and substantial violation, an order would be issued to withdraw miners from a specific area, effectively ceasing operations of that area until the problem is corrected there.

Prior to 2010, according to MSHA, no mine had been put on that list. But partly in response to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners, MSHA toughened its enforcement that year and began citing mines for POV actions. Since then, seven mines have been on the POV list.

In its 2010 screening, 51 chronic violators were identified for further review among mine operators. But for this year’s screening, that number had dropped to 12. The biggest reduction came in coal mines, which dropped from 42 in 2010 to six this year.

The numbers were obtained by The Associated Press ahead of their official release on Thursday.

JoeMainHouseMarch2012MSHA issued a press release and posted a blog entry from agency chief Joe Main, who touted what he said are the results of MSHA enforcement initiatives, saying they had created a “a game changer in mine safety and mine safety culture”:

While we can’t measure how many lives have been saved, or how many illnesses and injuries have been prevented, we do know these reforms have worked to make mines safer and made a real difference in the safety, health and wellbeing of our nation’s miners. That’s what really counts.

The MSHA announcement was based on a couple of key statistics:

— The number of mines identified as chronic violators has substantially declined. In 2010, when we first used the revised Potential Pattern of Violations screening tool, 51 mines were identified for further review. Using the same measuring stick, 12 mines were identified in this year’s screening – a 76% reduction in the universe of chronic violators. The most significant reduction was in the coal sector, which accounted for 42 screened mines in 2010, but only 6 in the recent 2014 screening – an 86% reduction.

— The unacceptable violation records once held by the top chronic violators such as Upper Big Branch are becoming a thing of the past. The top 12 of the 51 mines identified in the 2010 screening had been cited for 5,431 total violations, 2,050 of which were S&S violations. In contrast, the 12 mines identified in 2014 had been cited for 1,952 total violations, 857 of which were S&S violations.  This is a 64% reduction in total violations and a 58% reduction in S&S violations.

— Mines undergoing the POV process have significantly improved compliance and injury rates. We have measured the effectiveness of these reforms on mines undergoing the PPOV and POV process by comparing the results of mine inspections 6 months prior to the POV and PPOV actions to inspection results following the action. Since 2010, among the mines that were placed on POV or went through the potential POV process under the prior rule, the number of S&S violations has dropped by 62%, total violations fell by 38%, and, notably, unwarrantable failure violations dropped by 81%. In addition, the operator-reported rate of lost-time injuries in these mines went down 48%.

These are good developments. Don’t get me wrong about that. To the extent that increased enforcement and reduced violations — and most importantly curbed injuries and deaths — Joe Main, MSHA and the Obama administration deserve credit for their efforts to make those things happen.


But just a week before this AP scoop via MSHA announcement, the agency put out quite a different sort of statement, in its monthly press release about the previous month’s “impact inspections””

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that federal inspectors issued 131 citations and 11 orders during special impact inspections conducted at 12 coal mines in August.

Much of the release focused on some terribly troubling findings by MSHA inspectors who visited an Alpha Natural Resources operation in West Virginia:

One inspection began on Aug. 8, during the evening shift at Rocksprings Development Inc.’s Camp Creek Mine in Wayne County, West Virginia. The inspection followed multiple hazard complaints received by the MSHA hotline (1-800-746-1553), including allegations that the mine was mining coal without curtains to control dust exposure and employing tactics to hide the violations from inspectors. Inspection personnel monitored the communications systems at the mine to ensure no advance notification was given to underground sections by mine personnel. MSHA issued five unwarrantable failure orders and six citations during the inspection.

MSHA has cited the Camp Creek Mine 64 times in the past two years for failing to follow the approved ventilation plan. The mine, a gassy operation, liberates over 500,000 cubic feet of methane gas per day and is on a 10-day spot inspection schedule for methane. MSHA issued five unwarrantable failure orders and one citation for the operator’s failure to follow the mine’s approved ventilation plan for two operating sections. Inspectors found the mine operating with ventilation curtains rolled up in several different working areas and with dust so thick that only the lights on the roof bolting machine and the boom of the continuous mining machine could be seen. Ventilation curtains direct airflow in mining areas to ensure sufficient airflow to prevent methane accumulations and to control miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust.

MSHA also cited the mine operator for failure to maintain the dust filtering systems – which help protect the machines’ operators from harmful dust levels – on two roof bolting machines. This marked the second impact inspection conducted at this mine.

Oddly enough, the MSHA press release didn’t mention the parent company. Reporters had to click through to the list of impact inspection results to see that Alpha was the mine owner. MSHA was kind enough to send me the violations at Camp Creek without making me go through the agency’s lengthy FOIA review process (I’ve posted them here), and for what it’s worth Alpha says that it is challenging these enforcement actions. But just look at what Joe Main had to say just one week before his agency was declaring a “game changer” had occurred in the mining industry:

We continue to see mines ignoring required ventilation curtains needed to control methane gas and respirable coal dust that that causes black lung. The new respirable dust rule requires mine operators to conduct thorough exams each shift to ensure required ventilation and dust controls are in place, with top mine officials certifying those exams. That rule is designed to curb the types of abuses that lead to black lung disease, and we will use the full measure of that rule and the Mine Act to do just that.

And not for nothing, but Joe Main’s “game changer” blog post was posted just three days after mine safety officials in West Virginia issued their report that described the chilling events that occurred at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine leading up to the May “coal outburst” that killed two miners. MSHA has yet to issue its investigation report on the Brody deaths. But certainly, what happened to miners Eric D. Legg and Gary P. Hensley — shows what can happen at coal mines, even after MSHA has taken major enforcement actions, including a POV status order like the one MSHA had issued at Brody.

Coal mines are dangerous places. The margin for error — the difference between life and death — can be incredibly small. Politics, public relations and media coverage can make that easy to forget.