Coal Tattoo

More on WVU, Gordon Gee and Massey Energy

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It’s WVU Day up at the statehouse, so I guess we’ll be treated to a lot of “selfies” of university President E. Gordon Gee. But there’s a timely report out from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in which someone from our state’s news media finally questions Gee about his history and relationship with Massey Energy and indicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

Public Broadcasting’s Scott Finn asked Gee to comment on the four-count indictment that alleges his old friend led an effort to violate safety laws, thwart government inspections, and then lie to securities regulators and the investing public at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion (recall that Gee had not only served on Massey’s board, but on that board’s safety and environment committee — well, that is, he did, before he resigned those posts under pressure from environmental groups and Ohio State students).

Scott asked him:

Dr. Gee I know you’re not just concerned about student safety, but worker safety as well. Until you resigned from the Massey Energy Board of Directors in 2009, you served as chairman of their Safety, Environmental and Public Policy committee. In light of that, what’s your reaction to the federal indictment of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in relation to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Gee responded initially:

Well, you know, obviously, I think all of us who were every involved in mining in this state, and I certainly was, believe that the safety of our workers is the number one priority.

But Gee dodged any comment on the indictment, saying:

… It is probably inappropriate for me to comment on the indictment itself because I’m not engaged in it, I’m not familiar with it. I think this is a matter for the federal courts and a matter for them to resolve.

Scott pressed on, noting the findings of Davitt McAteer’s report on Upper Big Branch — that Massey Energy had a terrible safety culture, one McAteer’s team described as “the normalization of deviance,” and asked Gee:

I know you care deeply about safety, what do you think kept you and the other Massey board members from understanding the depth of the safety problems.

But here’s what else he had to say, according to the Public Broadcasting story:

“During my service on the Massey Board, that was clearly the focus on our board, was on safety and safety measures,” Gee said …

Gee said that safety was “always our number one concern” during his time on the board, and that they were “working very hard to solve the problems we had,” he said.

“These are large companies. I ran Ohio State University, which is the largest university in the country, and West Virginia University, which is one of the very large, complex institutions, and I don’t know everything that goes on there. So you have to have that sort of trusting relationship of having good people doing good things,” Gee said.

For the record, Gee was one of the named defendants in a lawsuit against Massey officials over safety conditions that were supposed to have been remedied under an earlier settlement, but — judging from the 29 dead bodies at Upper Big Branch — were not. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey, settled that suit for $265 million. And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had said in court records that former Massey executives and board members “may be or may become” targets in his office’s criminal investigation.

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Protecting miners: Will lawmakers get the message?

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As the centerpiece of the West Virginia Coal Association’s legislative agenda continues to make its way through the Legislature,  United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts today ripped the bill in a strong op-ed piece in the Gazette:

West Virginians have been treated to a display of raw political payback over the last several weeks in Charleston. Emboldened by sweeping victories in last November’s election, a new majority in the state Legislature is advancing legislation on multiple fronts that is designed to remove decades of laws and regulations that they believe have made West Virginia “uncompetitive.”

One of the industry groups set to benefit the most from all this is the coal industry, which has been in trouble lately, no question. The industry’s supporters say that to fix that problem, we need to roll back safety regulations. That, apparently, will save money. My question is, will it be enough?

He goes on:

What will it take to compete with coal being sold at about one quarter of the price of our coal? I just don’t think rolling back decades of safety improvements will do it. Nope, we’re going to have to do more.

Let’s bring back the company store, so the companies can take back the wages they pay to the miners. Maybe the companies can once again charge the miners for the tools and equipment they use. Longwalls and continuous miners are expensive; it seems only right that the companies recoup their costs for them.

And we can bring back the company town, so the miners can pay rent to the company for the privilege of living in a forced labor camp while working at a more unsafe mine. We can put company doctors back to work, because of course they are the most qualified to say if injured miners are healthy enough to go to work or have black lung. But no painkillers, though.

Two things about this line of argument come to mind.

First, will some of the Republicans now running the West Virginia Legislature — and maybe even some of the Democrats — understand that Cecil Roberts isn’t really suggesting our state do these things? It’s hard to know, especially after listening to some lawmakers who didn’t want to adopt as state standards to limit child labor in the especially dangerous places, despite more than decade-old recommendations aimed at keeping kids safe.

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Mine Explosion Anniversary

As West Virginia lawmakers continue to push a variety of measures aimed at weakening worker safety standards and eroding new water quality protections, it’s important to pay attention to some of the things they’re also doing to the state’s legal system — often one of the few places where citizens can go to have their voices heard and wrongs done to them addressed.

Often, the way these issues are being portrayed — as GOP lawmakers and industry lobbyists versus rich plaintiffs’ lawyers — while accurate to a point, doesn’t come close to telling the full story.

Take yesterday’s vote in the House of Delegates in favor of HB2011, a bill  with this fairly confusing name: “Relating to disbursements from the Workers’ Compensation Fund where an injury is self inflicted or intentionally caused by the employer.”

shott_johnThe general take on all of this is, basically:  Workers gave up the right to sue in most cases in exchange for guaranteed compensation for them if they are hurt on the job or their families if they are killed. Wrongful death lawsuits were only to be allowed in the most serious cases, when employers could be shown to have “deliberate intent” to cause on-the-job injuries or deaths. But those crazy courts in West Virginia have repeatedly interpreted this term “deliberate intent” far too liberally. As House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said in the Gazette story on yesterday’s House vote:

We are balancing the interest of our people and our business community.  The balance is out of sync. It’s no wonder our children and our grandchildren have to leave the area to get jobs.

Now, never mind that we’ve not seen or heard any data about how many “deliberate intent” cases are filed in West Virginia every year, or how many of those led to judgment against employers, or let alone had any serious discussion so far this session about what the state could do to stop leading the nation in coal-mining deaths and or (despite Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s recommendation for a study) the troubling string of deaths in the booming Marcellus Shale gas business.

It’s not like the West Virginia Legislature really feels the need to actually understand an issue, or have good data and expert analysis, to take action, right?

But in most cases, it would probably be helpful if the general public were given more than just a few quotes from each “side” of the debate. It’s helpful to look and see what bills actually say. So let’s do that with this “deliberate intent” bill.

First, a little bit of background, something that’s easy enough to get by just checking out this page from the West Virginia Encyclopedia, which describes the “Mandolidis” case and a bit of the history of workers compensation and deliberate intent in our state:

Mandolidis is a landmark case because it greatly expanded a worker’s right to sue an employer, even if the worker was covered by the workers’ compensation program. In the decision, Justice Darrell V. McGraw Jr. said the court recognized ‘‘a distinction between negligence, including gross negligence, and willful, wanton and reckless misconduct.’’ Such misconduct was interpreted as a deliberate intention on the part of the employer. This intention need not involve an actual desire to injure the worker, but rather an awareness of exposing the worker to a risk entailing a high probability of physical injury. In such cases, damages might be sought beyond the compensation provided by the workers compensation program. Such redress was allowed under the original 1913 workers compensation statute but had been restricted in recent decades under a 1936 court decision.

The president of the state Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders criticized the ruling and asked the legislature to pass a law to lessen its impact. Governor Rockefeller asked the 1982 legislature to consider a change in the law, but the legislature decided to appoint a study commission which made its recommendation in 1983. That year the Mandolidis bill (HB1201) was enacted, modifying the seven-year old decision. The new law softened the impact of the court decision but provided more rights to workers than prior to Mandolidis.

As you can imagine, there’s been tremendous controversy over the years about what this legislation actually means. There have been a lot of court cases, and lawmakers periodically revisit the issue, most frequently at the urging of business lobbyists who would just as well prefer that workers not be able to sue them at all for on-the-job injuries.

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Is a record low for mining deaths enough?

Mine Explosion Inspections

In this file April 5, 2011, file photo, Jami Cash, daughter of dead coal miner Michael Elswick, attends a vigil following the Upper Big Branch Memorial Service in Whitesville, W.Va., for  the 29 coal miners killed in an explosion at the mine in Montcoal, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)

It wasn’t even Christmas yet in 2014 before the folks at The Associated Press were jumping to proclaim it the safest year ever for coal-mining in the United States. Here’s the story, which in my absence for a h0liday vacation, ran on the front page of the Gazette:

Less than five years after an explosion fueled by excess coal dust killed 29 men deep inside a West Virginia underground mine, the nation’s coal mines are on pace for a record low in work-related deaths.

Federal mine safety officials credit changes they’ve made since the Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010. They point to their more aggressive use of team inspections at problem sites and other measures, which they say have fostered more responsible behavior below ground.

“I do think we’re seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that’s for the better,” Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, who heads the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, told The Associated Press.

As I’ve been catching up on the news I missed, it was interesting to see that longtime mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard had this to say on Facebook about the AP story:

With all due respect to my longtime buddy Joe Main, I don’t think the lower death rate in U.S. coal mines is due to a “cultural change” among mine operators. Nor do I agree with Bruce Watzman’s laughable assessment that the mining industry goes above & beyond what the federal mine safety law requires in order to safeguard its workers… The fact of the matter is that mining deaths have decreased primarily because the number of coal miners in the most problematic states – West Virginia and Kentucky – has decreased dramatically. That being said, Joe Main still deserves credit for making “blitzes” a regular MSHA enforcement tool. Blitzes, and the threat of blitzes, keep doghole mines on their toes…

Personally, as I’ve written before on this blog, I’m a little too superstitious for stories that predict the year-end death count for coal miners before the year is over yet. And in fact, right after this story came out, MSHA made a “chargeability” decision on a West Virginia mining death that increased the year-end total to 16 in the coal sector of the mining industry.

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Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

The sad news today came from the coalfields of Kentucky, via a Patriot Coal press release:

Eli Eldridge, a 34-year-old employee of Highland Mining Company, LLC, was fatally injured today when he was struck by a coal hauler while working underground at the Highland mine, located near Henderson, Kentucky. Patriot is fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies as they investigate this incident.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials list that as the 15th coal-mining death in the U.S. in 2014.

Remembering mine disasters

My friend Mike Gorrell, longtime coal reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, has a story out this week marking Friday’s 30th anniversary of the Wilberg Mine Disater. In Remembering Wilberg, the lives lost, the humanity found, Mike writes:

Nothing in his first eight years as Emery County sheriff prepared Lamar Guymon for Wilberg.

He had dealt with murders and senseless violence, but never mass death, not like he saw unfold in a coal mine fire 30 years ago Friday that killed 27 miners, Utah’s worst disaster of the past 90 years.

Pain was everywhere. Many of the little towns in Emery and Carbon counties lost four or five sons, husbands, fathers and friends, along with a daughter.

With Wilberg, the anguish was magnified and prolonged. It took three days of heroic rescue efforts to squelch desperate hopes that the miners were alive. Almost a year passed before their bodies could be brought home from the mine, which was sealed to prevent the fire from triggering an explosion.

Read the whole story. It’s worth it. Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to get through a week without stumbling onto more history, another anniversary of another coal-mining disaster. Sometimes it seems like these things are all the more painful because of loose ends left hanging about what caused the deaths, and who was responsible. Mike writes:

The 27 families settled a wrongful-death suit with Utah Power & Light for $22 million in March 1987, two weeks before MSHA’s probe formally blamed the air compressor for the fire and cited the mine owner and operator for 34 mine-safety violations, nine contributing directly to the tragedy. Fines associated with those violations totaled a then-record $111,470. A criminal investigation began, but no charges resulted.

Safety regulations were revised in response to the fire, but none applied to mining conditions responsible for the disaster at Crandall Canyon, where implosions of the mine walls on Aug. 6 and Aug. 16, 2007, fatally buried six miners, killed three rescuers and injured six others.

The agony from all this endures in Emery County, but the residents remain steadfast.

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Media challenges Blankenship case gag order

Mine Explosion

For Coal Tattoo readers who have been asking if the local or national press would challenge the broad gag order issued by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in the Don Blankenship criminal case, here’s the answer:

The Charleston Gazette and four other news organizations today urged a federal judge to withdraw a gag order that has blocked access to court records in a criminal case filed against longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Joining in the legal action in federal court in Beckley were the Gazette, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio and the Friends of Public Broadcasting.

The media coalition asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to reconsider her order, which also prohibits parties in the case, potential trial witnesses, and potentially families of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster from talking to the media.

I’ve posted a copy of the legal filing by media lawyer Sean McGinley here.

5 more things about the Don Blankenship indictment

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Gazette file photo by Chip Ellis

There’s been a lot written already about the indictment of longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (see here, here, here and here for Gazette stories), but there are a few things that readers may have overlooked and are worth knowing:

1.  Prosecutors did not charge Blankenship with actually causing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Certainly, the 43-page grand jury indictment mentions the mine disaster, and it alleges that Blankenship was personally an “operator” of the mine who took part in a conspiracy to violate key safety standards that four different investigations (see here, here, here and here) said led to the explosion. But U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby stopped just short of blaming Blankenship, of alleging that blowing up the mine was one of his crimes.

Doing so avoids any eventual criminal trial turning into a “battle of experts,” and may remove some of the ability of Blankenship’s defense team to trot out his much-promoted theory that the explosion was basically an “act of God,” caused by an unforeseeable inundation of natural gas.  Also, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger has not exactly been impressed thus far with the testimony of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration witnesses in previous Upper Big Branch cases (see here and here), and in at least one previous coal-mining disaster cases, the MSHA experts on explosions certainly could have done better.

2.  Financial crimes carry much longer maximum sentences than those for violating workplace safety standards.

Most news reports made clear that the total maximum sentence Blankenship would face if convicted on all four counts of the indictment would be 31 years. Of course, that’s the statutory maximum, and if doesn’t take into account federal sentencing guidelines.  But it hasn’t really been made clear that 20 years of that 32-year maximum sentence would come from Count 4 of the indictment, which charges Blankenship with a violation of 15 U.S.C. 78ff. The count alleges that Blankenship made untrue statements to the investing public when Massey defended its corporate safety record after the mine disaster.

Two other counts of the indictment — Count 2 charging Blankenship with conspiracy to defraud MSHA by advance notice of inspections and Count 3 charging him with making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — each carry maximum jail sentences of 5 years. The allegation that actually involves unsafe mining practices is Count 1, which alleges a conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards.  It carries a maximum sentence of 1 year in jail.

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Yesterday’s blockbuster news that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had obtained a grand jury indictment of longtime Massey CEO Don Blankenship had me thinking again about the discussions I used to have with a former coal industry publicist about the huge numbers of mine safety violations some mining operations across the country routinely run up every year.

The discussion went something like this:  There’s a fatality at a mine, and in covering the story, we would mention the number of violations cited at that operation the previous year by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.  The numbers would almost always be large — especially if it was a big underground mine. Sometimes it would be literally hundreds of violations. My industry source would say it was unfair to publish those numbers without more context about the types of violations. I would respond by saying that the public should understand just how often mine companies don’t follow the rules. Eventually, things might get around to the fact that some in the mining industry say it’s simply impossible to run a coal mine, particularly a large underground one, without routinely getting written up by MSHA.

I bring this up today, as everyone is digesting what could be a historic turn of events, because at some point — probably after quite a long and complicated fight among the lawyers — if this case ever gets to a trial, there’s kind of a threshold question that the jury will face. And it’s a question that West Virginians more broadly need to figure out: Is it really acceptable for coal companies to routinely violate the law?

That issue is at the heart of the indictment that Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby got from a grand jury that met this week in Charleston. Here’s part of the indictment:

During the Indictment period, UBB was cited approximately 835 times for violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards … Approximately 319 of these violations were in an especially serious category of violations: those that could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a safety or health hazard. Approximately 283 of UBB’s safety-law violations during the Indictment Period wee violations of the laws on mine ventilation, which operate to prevent explosions and fires in coal mines and to minimize deaths and serious injuries in the event an explosion or fire does occur. Approximately 59 of UBB’s safety law violations during the Indictment Period resulted in shutdown orders closing all or part of the mine until the violation was abated …

So yes, these were serious violations, and Upper Big Branch was a particularly problematic mine. But we also know that what can seem like little violations can turn into big violations, and that almost every time a coal miner is killed on the job, it’s because the company he worked for violated the law. And if you can turn your attention away from the Blankenship case long enough to check out the great work that Howard Berkes, Ellen Smith and others at NPR News and Mine Safety and Health News have done, it’s pretty obvious that plenty of coal operators don’t even have to count safety fines as part of the cost of doing business — because nobody ever makes them pay up.

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Don Blankenship indicted

Mine Explosion Congress

If you haven’t heard the latest, here’s the big coal news today from West Virginia:

Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of Massey Energy, was indicted Thursday on charges that he violated federal mine safety laws at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

We’ve posted a copy of the indictment on the Gazette’s website, and here’s a summary of narrative it lays out:

Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.

Also on the Gazette website, my coworker Kate White has a story with what some of the families of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch are saying today. We’ve also got a timeline of major events since the April 5, 2010, disaster, and a summary of convictions so far in the federal probe.

R. Booth Goodwin, Steve Ruby You can read U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s (left, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby)  short and to-the-point statement about the indictment here.

Bill Taylor, Blankenship’s attorney had this to say in a prepared statement:

We were notified today that our client Don Blankenship has been indicted in the Southern District of West Virginia. Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.  Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety. His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort  to silence him. He will not be intimidated.

And here’s a different statement, issued this evening by retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller:

For more than four years, Upper Big Branch families have cried out for justice for their loved ones lost in that horrific tragedy. Today’s indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is another step toward justice.  But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard.  As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.

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A personnel carrier that once carried miners underground was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine, which left five workers dead. Department of Labor/MSHA

Our friends at NPR News and the Mine Safety and Health News — Howard Berkes and Ellen Smith — have just posted some remarkable new work from a year-long investigation of what happens when coal mine operators never have to actually pay the safety fines that are assessed for violations of federal standards. Here’s how the web version of the NPR story starts:

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” Blankenship remembered four years later. “I’d black out and come to. I was waiting to die. I’d already had my little talk with God.”

Aracoma Alma and then-owner Massey Energy had a history of serious safety problems, including falling rock. In the two years before Blankenship’s accident, the mine was cited by federal regulators more than 120 times for rock fall violations, according to records from federal regulators. That included inadequate roof support and deficient safety checks for loose rock.

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Another W.Va. coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

The sad news came this morning from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training:

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training (WVOMHS&T) confirms a serious incident resulting in a fatality occurred Monday evening at approximately 9:35 p.m. at Red Bone Mining Company’s Crawdad No. 1 Portal B Mine in Monongalia County.

Raymond Scott Savage, 49, of Maidsville Westover, sustained fatal injuries after being struck by a piece of rock. Mr. Savage was a section foreman operating a roof bolting machine.

Inspectors from the WVOMHS&T have begun their investigation.

Red Bone’s president is Kristopher Lilly, according to records at the Secretary of State’s Office, and the mine is listed in some publicly available information as a contractor for Jame Laurita’s MEPCO.  A man who answered the phone at Red Bone’s office this morning declined comment, but said that company may have a formal statement later today.

The state’s count is now at 5 coal miners killed on the job in 2014.  MSHA has not yet made a decision about whether it will count one of those deaths as mining-related, so MSHA will list 5 West Virginia mining deaths, once its online count is updated.

Updated: Here’s a statement from Red Bone Mining:

On November 10, 2014, at approximately 9:35 p.m., Raymond Scott Savage, 49, of Westover, West Virginia, was injured in an accident at Red Bone Mining Company’s Crawdad No. 1 Portal B Mine. Mr. Savage later died from his injuries. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Savage’s family, friends and co-workers during this difficult time. Red Bone Mining Company is cooperating with investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training as the investigation into the cause of the accident continues.

 

 

 

How soon we forget: Mine safety in W.Va.

STANDDOWN

One way that West Virginia lawmakers seem to like to avoid taking stronger action on important public health and safety issues is to put off much-needed reforms until someone does a study or a report on the issue. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting more and better information — assuming that you plan to actually look at that information and follow up on the public policy implications of it.

That’s not always what really happens at the West Virginia Legislature. Just look, for example, at how lawmakers do nothing about the ongoing problems related to the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom, at the same time that they move terribly quickly to protect a Department of Environmental Protection decision to ignore landfill intake limits to ensure drillers have somewhere to dump their waste.

This method of ignoring important issues was on display yesterday at the Capitol, where a special legislative committee on Labor and Worker Safety Issues met during this month’s interim session.

The committee was scheduled to hear a presentation from Eugene White (above, left), director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, about this report, That report was required by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill, passed in 2012. That legislation mandated:

The director shall, by December 31, 2013, report to the Legislature and Governor on the need for revisions in the state’s underground mine safety enforcement procedures. The director shall initiate the study using appropriate academic resources and mining safety organizations to conduct a program review of state enforcement procedures to evaluate what reforms will assure that mining operations follow state mandated safety protocols. The report shall include recommended legislation, rules and policies, consider various options for improving inspections, accountability and equitable and timely administrative procedures that cause remediation of hazardous working conditions.

As readers may recall, while Gov. Tomblin, his handlers and a lot of lawmakers and cheerleaders called the governor’s legislation comprehensive, it was really anything but (see here, here and here). We also know that the Tomblin administration was slow to actually put in effect the few tough changes included in the governor’s bill.  And the point of this report was to outline other needed changes, so lawmakers could act on those, based on the facts and recommendations in this report.

First off, though, this report was completed and provided to lawmakers nearly a year ago now.  We wrote a story about it in early January, explaining:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders need to enact a long list of additional reforms to protect the health and safety of West Virginia’s coal miners, according to a new state report.

The report from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training urges revised inspection and enforcement measures, tougher standards for preventing mine explosions and a requirement for proximity-detection systems that would prevent common crushing and pinning accidents.

In the 85-page report, Tomblin and lawmakers also are urged to provide more money for coal mine regulation and safety training, and increase pay so the agency can maintain a quality inspection staff.

“West Virginia has repeatedly had the highest coal mine fatality and accident totals in the country,” the report says. “The state must correct that.”

But, the only thing that lawmakers did about mine safety during last year’s session was take action to confirm it was just fine with them that the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety didn’t follow a mandate to toughen methane monitoring n the state’s underground mines.

The only real safety reform that took place this year in West Virginia’s mines was a new rule to require proximity detection devices on certain mining equipment. But that rule allows mine operators quite a long time to comply, and it was passed only after repeated demands for action from mine widow and safety advocate Caitlin O’Dell.

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Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

Just in today is news that a coal miner was killed on Saturday at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine near Gillette, Wyoming.  According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

A surface miner was killed last night at about 11:45, after being ejected when his haul truck went over a highwall. District 9 personnel issued a 103J order upon notification and responded to begin an accident investigation. This is the second miner killed at this mine in 2014.

Here’s a link to MSHA’s preliminary report on the earlier death at this mine. That makes 13 so far nationwide in 2014.

Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

The bad news today comes from the coalfields of Kentucky, where, according to local media accounts:

A 31-year-old Tennessee man has died in a mining accident in southeastern Kentucky.

Justin M. Mize of Harrogate, Tennessee, died after an accident at the Tinsley Branch Mine in Bell County just after 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday according to a news release from the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety.

According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

A miner was injured on Tuesday, Oct. 7., at approximately 5:50 pm after entering a highwall mining machine hole that collapsed on him. The victim was not breathing when rescued, but was revived by ambulance workers and transported to a local hospital where he was treated initially. He was being flown to a larger medical facility when he died.

MSHA said the incident occurred at Commonwealth Mining LLC’s Tinsley Branch HWM61 operation, which is controlled by Cox Enterprises/L C Management. Updated: MSHA has posted its preliminary report here.

This is the 12th coal-mining death so far in 2014.

 

 

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.

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Two more coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

Bad news in this morning from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which reports that one coal miner was killed yesterday in Alabama and another early this morning in Utah.

The Alabama death occurred at the Manchester Mine, operated by Black Warrior Minerals in Walker County. Here’s what MSHA has released so far:

Yesterday afternoon, while operating a bulldozer at the Manchester Mine in Alabama, the dozer operator was killed when his dozer went off a highwall. Initial reports are the dozer was on a bench preparing a drill site.

Updated: MSHA has posted a preliminary report on this fatality here.  It identifies the miner who died as 53-year-old Barry M. Duncan.

The Utah death occurred at Murray Energy’s West Ridge Mine in Carbon County. Here’s what I have in from MSHA:

At approximately 1:39 a.m. local time today, a miner was killed on the 23rd Longwall at the West Ridge mine in Utah.  Reportedly, the victim was found inside the cab of his mobile diesel can-setter and apparently had received crushing injuries.  There were no witnesses.

No MSHA preliminary report posted on this one yet, but Murray Energy identified the miner who died as Alejandro Ramirez, age 46, of Price, Utah, and here’s the MSHA preliminary report.

Another coal miner killed on the job

Mine Explosion

The bad news yesterday came out of the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia, where the media reported:

Consol Energy Representatives confirm that Michael J. Justice, 41, of Rowe, VA was killed today in an accident at Buchanan Mine #1. They said Justice was electrically troubleshooting at a roof bolt machine when the accident happened. Justice was a maintenance supervisor at the mine, and worked there for approximately 4 years. Federal and State authorities are on scene, and an investigation into the cause of the accident is underway.

In its preliminary report on the death, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said:

The victim was fatally electrocuted while troubleshooting a Fletcher DDR-15A roof bolting machine on 25 Right Section. The panel cover was removed from the machine and the victim was working inside the energized panel when the accident occurred.

 This is the 9th coal-mining death in the U.S. this year under the MSHA count.

 

Coal control: How safety board members get picked

MineBoardIndustry

Industry members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety include West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton, right, and Patriot Coal’s Terry Hudson, center. To the left is now-former board member Charles Russell of Arch Coal.

When we last left the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, board members had just managed to somehow pass a rather watered-down version of a rule to eventually require mine operators to install life-saving proximity detection systems on at least some underground mining equipment in our state’s coal industry. Board members did this after months of pleas from the widow of a miner whose life could have been saved by such technology, and after struggling with something the board wasn’t used to — and didn’t seem to care for — public involvement in its deliberations and transparency of its discussions and decisions.

That was more than three months ago. Fast-forward to Monday, when the board had a regular monthly meeting scheduled over at the Charleston Civic Center.

When the meeting started, there was a new face at the table:  Brian Keaton, a safety official with Alpha Natural Resources. Keaton had been appointed to the seat that had previously been held by Arch Coal official Charles Russell. Now, there was no indication that I’ve heard of that Mr. Russell wanted off the board. And it appeared that even some fellow board members were surprised — or at least acted surprised — at the change. When board member Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal came into the room, for example, he said, “Where’s Charlie?”

So, I wondered what was going on. My first inquiry to the office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who appoints the board members, produced this emailed response from deputy press secretary Shayna Varner:

Gov. Tomblin is responsible for thousands of appointments on boards and agencies and consults with key leaders to make those appointments, as appropriate.

In order to provide as many qualified citizens as possible with an opportunity to serve West Virginia and with the expiration of Charles Russell’s term, the governor has appointed Brian Keaton to serve on the Coal Mine Safety Board. Brian’s experience and expertise will be a great asset to improving mining safety in the Mountain State.

 Gov. Tomblin is extremely appreciative of Mr. Russell’s service.

OK … now the problem with all of that is that Charlie Russell wasn’t the only board member whose term had expired. In fact, Terry Hudson was the only board member whose term hadn’t expired.  Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton’s term expired on June 30, 2009.  So did the terms of United Mine Workers representatives Carl Egnor and Gary Trout.  UMW member Terry Hapney’s term expired two years before that, in June 2007.

So why did Gov. Tomblin replace only Charles Russell, and leave the terms of four other board members — on both sides of the table — expired?

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How coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

Yesterday, a coal miner in Montana became the 8th coal industry fatality of 2014, while the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has released the report of its investigation into the November 2013 death of coal miner Dallas Travelstead  at M-Class Mining LLC’s MC #1 Mine in Franklin County, Illinois. The operation is part of Chris Cline’s coal empire. Here’s the summary of what happened:

On November 4, 2013, at approximately 1:50 p.m. (CST), Dallas Travelstead (victim), a Longwall Chief, was fatally injured when shoveling coal and loose rock between the coal face and the longwall panline.  The accident occurred at the No. 123 shield on the South District 1, Headgate of the No. 2 Longwall.  Travelstead received crushing injuries when a solid piece of coal and cap rock fell from the coal face, striking his mid to lower back, pinning him against the working face side of the panline.  

The mine operator did not have effective policies, programs, procedures, or controls in place to protect miners from a fall of the longwall roof or face while miners are positioned on the panline or between the panline and the longwall face.

The MSHA report noted:

A review of the previous accidents and injuries for the MC #1 Mine shows that on September 17, 2013, there was one previous injury from fall of the longwall face.  In that accident, the injured miner was inside the panline changing bits on the shearer, when coal rolled out of the face and struck the left foot of the miner.  Two previous roof falls on the longwall blocked egress on the tailgate side of the longwall.  These two roof falls occurred on March 31, 2011, and March 29, 2012.

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