Coal Tattoo

How coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion
lambkaWhile the rest of us were focused yesterday on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposed carbon pollution rule, the folk over at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration were doing what they still have to do far too often … issuing a report of their investigation into the death of a coal miner.  This time it was this report on the Jan. 16, 2014, death of Daniel Lambka, a 20-year-old laborer at Alliance Coal’s Mettiki Mine in Tucker County, W.Va.

Here’s the MSHA summary of what happened:

On Thursday, January 16, 2014, Daniel Lambka (victim), a 20-year-old general inside laborer, was struck by a coal feeder, resulting in fatal injuries. Lambka was on the off side of the belt conveyor, tightening a chain which connected the feeder to the section tailpiece. The tailpiece anchor, located between the rib and the tailpiece, came loose from the rib, allowing the tailpiece to shift, pinning Lambka between the frame of the feeder and the rib.

MSHA investigators listed two “root causes” for the death:

— The mine operator failed to assure the newly moved tailpiece was secured and blocked against shifting prior to starting the belt conveyors. The mine operator did not have effective procedures in place to assure that miners knew the precautions to take and were trained in initial start-up of the belt; and

— The mine operator failed to assure persons were clear of the belt tail area during the startup of the belt conveyors.

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MSHA announces safety ‘walk and talks’

Here’s today’s news from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

In the wake of two mine stakeholder safety summits held in less than four weeks, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration announced today it is stepping up efforts even further to counteract the recent spike in mining deaths.

joe-main-008a2Enforcement personnel from MSHA’s coal and metal and nonmetal programs (along with field staff from the agency’s Educational Policy and Development division) will visit mines across the country to conduct safety “walk and talks” with miners and mine operators to increase their awareness of recent fatalities and encourage them to apply their safety training and remain vigilant for unsafe conditions. Discussion topics will include: task training, mine examinations, causes of mining fatalities and best practices to prevent mine accidents. 

Inspectors will continue to look for the types of conditions that led to recent mining deaths and exercise their enforcement authority.

Since October 2013, 20 miners have lost their lives in metal and nonmetal mining accidents, including six supervisors. MSHA held a summit on May 5 to inform the mining industry about the causes of these accidents and shared best practices needed to prevent them. Just last week, more than 250 representatives from the metal and nonmetal mining industry participated in a conference call with MSHA officials to continue the discussion about mine fatalities and the role that safety trainers can play in accident prevention.

“MSHA is using all of its tools – education and outreach, training and enforcement – to prevent these accidents,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “But it will also take the efforts of those outside the agency – operators, miners and trainers – to turn this troubling trend around.”

MSHA pushes proximity detection rule back again


Late last week — predictably, just before a holiday weekend — the Obama administration released its latest regulatory agenda. Not surprisingly, the timeline for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to begin requiring coal-mine operators to install life-saving proximity detection systems in underground mines was pushed back … again.

When last we heard from MSHA in December, the timeline was for a final rule for proximity detection on continuous mining machines to be out by February 2014. Now, the timeline says June 2014.  The old timeline for other underground mining equipment was to get a proposed rule out the door by May 2014 (this month). The new timeline says that won’t happen until September 2014.

So far this year, after two different coal-mining deaths (see here and here)  MSHA has issued “Fatalgram” reports that listed “install proximity detection” as a “best practice” that would help to eliminate these kinds of deaths … yet the agency’s timeline for requiring the industry to use these devices keeps getting pushed back … At least the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety has issued its proximity detection rule — though it took a lot of public pressure, and the timeline in it for operators to actually install the devices is pretty loose.

Mine safety: How change happens

We’ve tried our best on this blog and in the Gazette to cover the efforts of Mrs. Caitlin O’Dell to turn the incredibly untimely — and totally preventable — death of her husband into some sort of reform for West Virginia’s coal-mining industry.

The move in April by the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety to begin the process of requiring proximity detection systems on underground coal-mining equipment in the state was without doubt pushed forward by her efforts. The board — with a healthy dose of transparency and public involvement — has come a long way since they flatly rejected Mrs. O’Dell’s initial request back in October 2013.

Above is speech she gave to mine inspectors before they received their training on implementing the new rules … watch it.

It’s seems pretty apparent that political staffers these days have press releases ready to go when there’s a coal-mining death. Elected officials call the deaths a tragedy, urge prayer for the families, etc. Press agents can just insert the dates, companies and names of the miners. But it’s also getting so that media outlets can just plug in the company name and mine, and then update the numbers for a story that basically says, “Mine where worker killed had history of violations.”

EricLeggAR-305169984.jpg&MaxH=250&MaxW=300At least that’s the way it seemed after Monday night’s terrible coal outburst that so needlessly claimed the lives of coal miners Eric Legg (far right) and Gary Hensley down in Boone County at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine No. 1. Media outlets around the country, armed with this thing called “Google”, were pretty quickly able to throw something into their stories about how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had put Brody on a “pattern of violations” because of its repeated safety problems.

Now it’s important to remember that, despite some suggestions to the contrary, Patriot’s appeal of this POV designation hadn’t delayed MSHA’s enforcement actions under that POV process.  MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told me that the POV had led to 69 closure orders for parts of the Brody Mine since it was issued back in October 2013.

Over at NPR News, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch and Howard Berkes put together a blog post that offers a bit more substance on what this POV status means — and more importantly what it doesn’t mean. Their piece on NPR’s The Two-Way was headlined, Regulators Couldn’t Close U.S. Mine Despite Poor Safety Record:

The West Virginia mine where two workers were fatally injured on Monday consistently violated federal mine safety laws, but federal regulators say they were unable to shut it down completely …

NPR’s review of data from MSHA reveals serious safety issues under Patriot management that put miners at risk of injury or death.

From 2013 on, MSHA cited Patriot’s Brody No. 1 mine:

— 40 times for highly negligent violations of 18 mining standards, which inspectors determined could lead to the deaths of coal miners.

— 39 times for allowing combustible materials, such as coal mine dust, to accumulate, which can fuel explosions.

— 22 times for failing to properly inspect the mine before workers began shifts. These “pre-shift examinations” are designed to spot and correct safety hazards before miners are put at risk.

— 20 times for failing to properly ventilate the mine for methane gas and coal mine dust, which can ignite and explode. These violations were deemed “significant and substantial,” which MSHA defines as violations that are reasonably likely to result in serious injury or illness.

— 20 times for significant and substantial violations for failing to control the roof of the mine to prevent rocks from falling during mining.

— 532 times for violations overall. Of those, 253 violations were characterized as significant and substantial. High negligence was cited for 68 violations. And 80 were for circumstances that violated MSHA’s “Rules to Live by,” which identify factors that have been common in mine disasters, explosions and fatalities.

But as the NPR piece explains:

Despite the threat to miners, federal regulators say they do not have the authority to simply close the mine.

MSHA failed to use an even tougher tool at the Brody mine. The agency has the authority to seek a federal court injunction that would place a mine under the supervision of a federal judge. The judge could then order the closure of the mine if its owner failed to fix chronic safety problems.

But in the 40 years it has had this authority, MSHA has used it only once — in 2010 against Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine No. 1 in Kentucky. Massey then closed the mine.


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Turkey Mining Accident

The rows of open graves for the mine accident victims in Soma, Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. Rescuers desperately raced against time to reach more than 200 miners trapped underground Wednesday after an explosion and fire at a coal mine killed at least 200 workers, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said Wednesday.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

A lot of the coverage you see in U.S. news media this morning of the horrible mining explosion and fire  in the coalfields of Turkey has focused, perhaps understandably, on the protests that have erupted in the aftermath of this unspeakable disaster. Here’s USA Today, for example:

APTOPIX Turkey Mining AccidentProtests erupted across the country and angry relatives of the nearly 300 victims of a mine disaster booed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he visited the mine and told them that mine accidents are “usual things.”

In the capital Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a group of students who tried to march on the Energy Ministry in protest of poor mine safety. Protests also broke out in front of the offices of the mining company, Soma Holding, in Soma and near Taksim Square in Istanbul – the center of anti-government protests last year.

And here’s The New York Times:

As the death toll from Turkey’s worst mining accident rose on Thursday, labor leaders called for a one-day strike, adding to the growing political challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over its handling of the disaster.

Demonstrations broke out on Wednesday in Ankara, the capital, and in Istanbul, as public displeasure surfaced. Rescue workers, meanwhile, struggled to locate scores of coal miners still unaccounted for after an explosion ignited underground fires a day earlier. Late on Wednesday, the official death toll was put at 274 but it increased to 282 on Thursday when eight more bodies were recovered.

Other coverage has focused on the desperate search for survivors, as this BBC account did:

As ambulances took away an increasing number of bodies, some of the bereaved wailed uncontrollably and were carried away by their families.

Nearly 450 workers have been rescued, according to the mine operator. However, no survivors have been found in the last few hours.

Mr Erdogan said 80 of those rescued had been treated for injuries, none of which were serious. Nineteen of these had already been discharged from hospital.

The BBC’s James Reynolds in Soma says family members of missing miners are gathered at the hospital. They told him they would not move from there until they got information about their loved ones.

Of course, then there’s the political reaction from Turkey:

Recep Tayyip ErdoganOpponents blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s (right)  government for privatizing the country’s mines and ignoring repeated warnings about their safety.

“We as a nation of 77 million are experiencing a very great pain,” Erdogan told a news conference after visiting the site. But he appeared to turn defensive when asked whether sufficient precautions had been in place at the mine.

Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It’s not like these don’t happen elsewhere in the world,” he said, reeling off a list of global mining accidents since 1862.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve forgotten what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said not so long ago, after two West Virginia miners were killed in separate — but entirely preventable  (see here and here) — accidents on the same day:

Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur. Joanne and I pray for the miners and their families. We ask all West Virginians to do the same.

But as I read these accounts, all that I can really focus on is how needless all of this death and suffering really is. As we mentioned yesterday, coal-mining disasters are preventable. We’ve known for decades what causes them and what steps can be taken to stop them from happening. Even the slow horror of one-by-one coal-mining deaths in roof falls or machinery accidents can be prevented.  So why don’t we put an end to coal-mining deaths and disasters?

Over at NPR, Howard Berkes spent some time on that question, in a piece headlined Past Disasters Haunt Modern-Day Coal Mining Accidents.

Talking with long time mine safety expert and advocate Davitt McAteer, Howard’s piece explains how the Turkish disaster may have began with the sort of electrical system problem that is relatively easy to avoid, even in underground coal mines. And, McAteer explains, the death toll in Turkey is almost certain far worse than it needed to be, because the blast occurred at shift change when — because of the operators’ desire not to shut down equipment during that process — twice as many workers were underground as might otherwise have been. Commenting on that practice, McAteer told Howard:

It enhances productivity by keeping the production in operation, but what it does is double the number of people at risk.

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Mine Explosion

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is reporting that another coal miner has been killed on the job, this one in southern Illinois. MSHA says the death occurred at M Class Mining LLC’s MC No. 1 Mine in Franklin County.

UPDATED: Here’s the preliminary information from MSHA:

Yesterday afternoon, at approximately 3:20 pm, Central time,  a roof bolting machine helper was killed after receiving crushing injuries. The victim was helping tram a roof bolting machine in the travelway at the Viking Portal when he was caught between the roof bolting machine and the coal rib.

MSHA District 8 issued a 103j order (has since been modified to 103k) and an accident investigator and a field office supervisor have responded to begin an investigation.  A family liaison was also sent to the mine.

As local media are explaining (see here and here), the mine is part of the Sugar Camp Energy complex, which is part of West Virginia native Chris Cline’s coal holdings.  MSHA lists the MC No. 1 Mine’s current controller as Coalfield Transport Inc. (See also here).

This is the second death in six months at this particular mine, according to MSHA reports.



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.”

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Two more W.Va. miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

The sad news broke late last night and early this morning, out of Boone County, W.Va.:

Two miners were killed last night at a Patriot Coal operation in Boone County where federal officials said last year they would increase enforcement because of a pattern of serious violations and unreported worker injuries.

Federal and state officials this morning confirmed the deaths occurred at Patriot’s Brody Mine No. 1 in the Wharton area.

Killed were Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight, and Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, said Amy Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

No other workers were unaccounted for this morning and no other injuries were reported, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

A statement from MSHA referred to the incident as a “ground failure,” while the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s initial report called it a “coal outburst.” Both descriptions suggest the incident was not simply a roof fall, but involved pressures from above ejecting rock and coal material from the mine walls onto the workers.

Mine Explosion Congress

Over the last week, the “retired” Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, has once again become a bit of a national media darling. He’s done appearances on ABC News and MSNBC, among others. Perhaps the most ridiculous was the interview he did with something called HuffPost Live, which started out with this exchange:

Interviewer: I’m always interested when I talk to people who have reached the very top of their fields what they wanted to do when they were young. You were growing up in a not rich family with a single mother in a West Virginia town. Did you ever dream of being a titan of industry? What did you want to do?

Blankenship: I think I wanted to be a professional baseball player at the time.

Incredibly, later in that particular show, the host, Josh Zepps, asks Blankenship this question:

It can only imagine the kind of pressure a CEO and the chairman of a huge company is under.  And if I try to put myself in your shoes or in the shoes of a CEO, I can sort of imagine that if i have a fiduciary responsibility to a board and shareholders to make sure the profits are as good as they can be, then I’m sort of sympathetic to the idea that, look I’m not forcing my workers to work here, I’m not forcing anyone to do anything. We all use energy, we all use coal. Providing America with cheap and affordable coal is my job. That’s my responsibility. Maybe there are corners that have to be cut. Is that a trade off that happens?

Eventually, Zepps is gushing at Blankenship, when he asks him about a variety of issues beyond coal mining:

You’re an interesting guy, so it’s interesting to get your thoughts on these political things.

What I couldn’t help thinking all week, though, after watching all 51 minutes of  “Upper Big Branch: Never Again” was why the media was going along with Blankenship and calling this a documentary.  Lots of people probably have lots of definitions of “documentary,” but here’s one that I found:

A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record.

It seems pretty obvious to me that so much of this YouTube video is fiction that the definition just doesn’t apply. Then there’s the notion of what part of reality it is trying to depict, not to mention whether it provides much to accurately maintain a historical record. But beyond that, it seems a little insulting to the good people who work hard to make real documentaries to lump this in with their films. Do we really think that this recycling of Blankenship’s discredited arguments about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster belongs in the same category as something like Hollow, the Appalachian interactive documentary that just won a Peabody Award?

Seriously now. You’re going to give us a former Massey board member pontificating about the disaster, and identify him as if he were just any old mining engineer?

By now, if you’re following this issue at all, we know that some of the individuals interviewed for the video have said they either didn’t understand Blankenship’s involvement in funding the project or allege they were specifically misled about his role.

And of course, we’ve seen the somewhat bizarre situation in which Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is complaining he didn’t know about Blankenship’s role and demanding that the video be removed from the Internet and not distributed. You have to wonder how this possibly could have happened. And most importantly, some of Sen. Manchin’s comments included in the video were a bit odd.

For example, when the interviewer in the video is pitching Blankenship’s view that a massive inundation of natural gas was what caused the explosion, Sen. Manchin responds, “I never heard that. I always assumed that it was methane.” What? To be sure, the Blankenship-Massey “Act of God” theory about a natural gas inundation got plenty of attention from the media (see here and here, for example). It’s hard to believe Sen. Manchin had never heard of it or wasn’t briefed on that controversy. Surely Sen. Manchin read MSHA’s report on the disaster, and it discusses this issue extensively.

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Is this really about protecting coal miners?

Mine Explosion Anniversary

It was fascinating to listen earlier today as members of the House of Delegates approved a little-noticed piece of legislation called SB 603.

In explaining the bill and several amendments to fellow delegates, House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin was saying that the bill’s purpose was to set a state limit on methane — the concentration at which mining machines would automatically shut off to avoid explains — more stringent than that set by the federal government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Well, it’s true that West Virginia law contains a methane shutoff concentration that is more stringent — lower — than the 2.0 percent set by MSHA, that’s not at all what this bill was really about.

What this particular bill is actually all about is fixing the situation that the Tomblin administration and lawmakers got themselves into when they wrote their post-Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster law two years ago, and wanted to make that law — miserably weak though it was — sound like it was a major accomplishment.

Along the way, the bill actually increases the amount of methane allowed before mining machines will shut off, and it protects members of the state’s Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety from having to do their jobs.

To understand, we need a little background. Recall a story we published in the Gazette in January 2013:

Last week in his inaugural address, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted his administration’s efforts to ensure the safety and health of West Virginia’s coal miners.

“We made our mines safer by passing a comprehensive mine safety bill to protect the thousands of miners across this state who work each and every day so we may all enjoy a better life,” the governor said after being sworn in for a new term.

Today, though — more than 10 months after that bill was passed — a key provision isn’t being enforced, officials confirmed last week. And it’s not likely to be enforced any time soon, they said.

Tomblin and legislative leaders repeatedly touted language aimed at tightening the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when methane is detected underground.

State regulators, though, have never written rules to implement that part of the legislation. Without those rules, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is prohibited from enforcing the tighter methane-shutoff requirements.

Understand this:

Coal operators are required to monitor underground mines for methane, which can explode when it is present at between 5 percent and 15 percent of the air.

Under federal rules, methane monitors are designed to automatically shut down underground mining equipment if the explosive gas is detected at concentrations of 2.0 percent or greater. The idea is that shutting down mining equipment removes a potential source of a spark that could ignite methane and cause a catastrophic explosion.

And here’s what West Virginia did in Gov. Tomblin’s mine safety bill:

Initially, legislation introduced by House Democratic leaders, coal-cutting devices on mining equipment would be required to automatically shut down when methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent.

During negotiations with coal industry and UMW lobbyists, the language was re-written so that the automatic shutdown would occur only if methane concentrations reached 1.25 percent for a “sustained period.” Lawmakers required the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety — a panel of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor — to write rules to define the phrase “sustained period.”

Lawmakers approved the legislation on March 6, 2012. Tomblin officially signed the measure on March 16 and then held a second, public signing ceremony on March 21. The legislation took effect in June, 90 days after its passage.

Under the bill, board members had four months from the bill’s effective date — or by October — to write the rules. However, industry and labor representatives apparently were unable to reach agreement on how to define “sustained period,” with industry officials wanting a looser definition, and UMW officials a more restrictive one.

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Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

There was some bad news last week out of the coalfields of Virginia:

State mining inspectors are investigating the death of a coal miner who was pinned by a coal-extracting machine he was operating in a southwest Virginia mine.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy says 24-year-old Arthur David Gelenster sustained fatal injuries Friday afternoon at a mine in Buchanan (buhk-AN’-un) County.

Tarah Kesterson says the death of the Buchanan County man occurred at Dominion Coal Corp. Mine No. 30 near the unincorporated town of Whitewood. She said the mine is owned by SunCoke Energy.

Kesterson said Gelenster was operating a machine called a continuous miner to extract coal from the underground mine.

She says the mining death was the first in Virginia since January 2012.

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006


It was 8 years ago this morning that an explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va. Twelve miners died and another barely got out alive.

Miner Randal McCloy Jr. survived, and the miners killed were:

Tom Anderson, Terry Helms, Marty Bennett, Martin Toler, Marshall Winans, Junior Hamner, Jesse Jones, Jerry Groves, James Bennett, Jackie Weaver, Fred Ware, and David Lewis.

Investigators said the deaths were avoidable, and a report by Davitt McAteer’s team had plenty of blame to spread around.

And as I’ve said before, it’s always worth remembering these words from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, spoken on the Senate floor after Sago:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

Another coal miner killed on the job

Mine Explosion

Bad news over the weekend from Ohio. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Late Saturday afternoon, a miner was killed at the Century Mine on the longwall face, reportedly after being struck by a high-pressure hydraulic hose and high-pressure hydraulic fluid.  District 3 personnel responded and an investigation has been started.

MSHA records show the Century Mine, located near Beallsville, Ohio, is operated by Murray Energy’s American Energy Corporation. In a statement, Murray Energy confirmed the incident occurred at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday and identified the miner who was killed as Ryan E. Lashley, age 32, of Somerton, Ohio.  “American Energy sends its condolences to
the family,” the company said in its statement.

This is the 20th coal-mining death so far in 2013, according to MSHA’s official count.  It is the first coal-mining death this year in Ohio.


The industry representatives to the state’s mine safety board are, from left to right, Charles Russell of Arch Coal, Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal, and Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.

When we last left the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, board members were somehow able to refuse the request from a miner’s widow  (see also this) that they finally get moving on a state rule to request the use of life-saving proximity detection technology in our state’s underground coal miners.

I was thinking about that last meeting, held in early October in Flatwoods, and remembering the looks on the board members’ faces when Mrs. Caitlin O’Dell introduced herself as simply “Steven O’Dell’s widow” when the board went around the room, insisting that all visitors identify themselves. They do that every meeting. The funny thing is, the board members don’t bother to tell the visitors who they are — they don’t give us their names or what coal company they work for.

Maybe it works that way because it’s not very often that members of the public have the time or inclination to take in a mine safety board meeting. I wonder sometimes what they would think if they did.

Take last week’s meeting in Charleston. The issue of proximity detection — summarily dismissed by the board in October — wasn’t on the agenda. But the board took it up anyway, tossing remarks back and forth across the room. The coal industry has decided now it wants a rule, so Chris Hamilton rattles off some vague explanation of what he thinks it should be. Not to be outdone, the United Mine Workers now has their own version. There’s an undercurrent of both sides trying to outdo or outmaneuver the other — certainly not one of labor and management working together to ensure miners are kept healthy and safe.

I’m not saying the board members don’t want to protect miners. But would a stranger who walked into the meeting think so? Mrs. O’Dell certainly didn’t. As we reported last month following the board’s voting down numerous proximity technology proposals:

Caitlin O’Dell got up to leave, telling board members as she walked out of the meeting room, “I’m really disappointed. If you can’t agree on something, it’s going to happen again and at that point, the blood is on your hands.”

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Blankenship vs. Hoppy: More of the same on UBB

Mine Explosion Congress

Maybe it sounded like a good idea at the time. A “joint friend” hooked Hoppy Kercheval up with former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for an interview on the MetroNews statewide “Talkline” program. They’d take the show’s second full hour. Hoppy would get to grill Blankenship for the first 30 minutes, asking him about mine safety and the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Then Blankenship would get the second half-hour to talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.

hoppyI guess Hoppy thought this would be some big “get” for him. Perhaps he missed that the big WOWK-TV “exclusive” interview with Blankenship really didn’t produce any news. Or maybe he thought he was a more skilled interviewer and would trick Blankenship into revealing something important and new.  Or maybe Hoppy even thought that, given enough rope, Blankenship would show more of himself than he really wanted to — or at least more than his lawyers would like, as the federal criminal probe of Massey’s safety practices continues forward. Of course, Hoppy might have just thought having Blankenship on would be the talk-radio equivalent of link bait — which it certainly turned out to be.

But surely Hoppy never expected what he got out of Blankenship yesterday morning. After Hoppy dared to ask Blankenship a couple of perfectly reasonable — but really fairly restrained — questions, Blankenship went after Hoppy, with the whole thing eventually degenerating into Blankenship making the laughable suggestion that somehow Hoppy Kercheval and West Virginia MetroNews have been helping President Obama with his “war on coal.” Blankenship went so far as to lump Hoppy in with the Gazette in a media conspiracy to destroy the coal industry.

If you really want to, you can listen to the whole thing for yourself here, but there are a couple of points that need to be made following what really amounted to little more than a nice bit of West Virginia media and political theater.

First, Blankenship tries to assert that the growing number of safety violations cited by federal inspectors at the Upper Big Branch Mine in the months prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners were simply the result of an overzealous U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. MSHA inspectors, according to Blankenship’s theory, were writing up Massey in an effort to do their part on the “war on coal”. They were going after Massey especially hard, this theory says, because Blankenship had been a strong political opponent of Obama and of MSHA chief Joe Main’s former employer, the United Mine Workers of America.

The obvious problem with Blankenship’s theory is that Massey’s safety problems date back to long before anybody ever heard of the Upper Big Branch Mine.  MSHA data shows the number of violations cited at Massey mines was on the rise prior to Obama taking office, and long before Joe Main took over at MSHA.  And as we’ve documented before, it’s not like the UBB Disaster is the first time Massey’s behavior and safety practices were so bad that they prompted federal criminal charges.

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Forty-five years ago this morning, an explosion ripped through Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine near the communities of Farmington and Mannington, W.Va.  Seventy-eight miners were killed, and the bodies of 19 of the victims remain entombed where they had worked.

It’s popular at this time of year to remember Farmington, and to note that its legacy was the passage a year later by Congress of the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. It’s certainly true that this disaster — and the activism by miners and their families, along with many mine safety advocates — forced lawmakers to act. And there’s no question that conditions for miners have improved dramatically in many ways in the last 45 years.

But should a society that depends on miners — and champions them, claiming to honor and respect their work — be content with the progress that’s been made?

Should we be satisfied when, just a few days ago, two silver/gold miners were killed in an explosives incident at a Colorado mine that, as Howard Berkes reported for NPR,  had a violations rate roughly twice the national average?

Should we be satisfied when coal miners continue to die in great numbers from black lung, a totally preventable disease, while the White House sits on a rule intended to stop these deaths and coal industry lawyers do everything they can to fight black lung benefits claimed filed by disabled miners?

Should we in West Virginia be satisfied, when only 4 percent of the mobile equipment used in our state’s underground mines — that’s 1 out of every 25 machines — is equipped with proximity detection technology that can save miners from death or serious injuries?

A little more than a month ago, the widow of a miner whose life could have been saved by proximity detection technology made an eloquent plea to the state Board of Coal Mine Safety, asking them to adopt a rule that would stop the next such death. Industry members of the board blocked the proposal. Board members have another meeting scheduled tomorrow. It’s at 10 a.m. at the Charleston Civic Center. Proximity detection rules aren’t even on their agenda for discussion …

Why coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has released the report of its investigation into a February 2013 death at Knight Hawk Coal LLC’s Prairie Eagle South underground mine in Perry County, Illinois.  Here’s the overview:

On Wednesday, February 13, 2013, Timothy Chamness (victim), a 28-year-old continuous mining machine operator, was fatally injured when he was pinned between the tail of the remote controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib on MMU 001-0, located on the 3rd North section of the Main West entries. While repositioning the continuous mining machine to mine the final cut on the left side of the entry, the victim was pinned between the conveyor boom of the machine and the coal rib on the right side of the entry.

The accident occurred because the mine operator did not ensure that the mine’s roof control plan and the company policies in place at the time of the accident were being followed. The mine operator did not have engineering controls in place to prevent this type of accident. In addition, the mine operator did not have a method to prevent damage to the valve bank and solenoids component assembly on the continuous mining machine.

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Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

Here’s the bad news in today from Illinois via the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

A serious, accident occurred Monday afternoon (11/4) at the M-Class mine, which resulted in a fatality.  At about mid-face on the longwall, a large piece of coal rolled over on the victim, causing crushing injuries.  The material was reported to be 3 feet long, 18 inches thick, and 20 inches wide. It took most of the crew to remove the coal from the victim. This is preliminary information.

This incident occurred at the MC#1 Mine, operated by M-Class Mining LLC.  This is the 19th coal-mining death in the U.S. so far this year, and the 4th in Illinois. That’s the most in Illinois since 1990, according to MSHA.

Alpha close to $265 million deal in safety suit


Early this morning, Alpha Natural Resources issued its latest quarterly financial statement, and it certainly has some interesting news:

Alpha has made significant progress toward reaching a tentative understanding to settle for $265 million the securities class action brought by Massey stockholders in early 2010 alleging deficiencies in Massey’s disclosures of safety information.

The statement continues:

Additional material terms must still be negotiated. If a definitive settlement agreement is achieved and approved by the court, the settlement would result in the dismissal of the action. Alpha expects insurance recoveries of approximately $70 million to help cover the cost of the settlement.


In connection with these developments, Alpha recorded an increase in its loss contingency accruals of approximately $115 million in the third quarter. Alpha plans to continue settlement discussions in an effort to resolve all outstanding issues, including the form of consideration. Whether Alpha can resolve those issues, and when, remains uncertain, but if the case can be resolved, it would staunch the uncertainty, distraction, risks and potential costs that pursuing this litigation would involve, and would close the book on the most significant Massey-related litigation issues passed to Alpha in the acquisition.