Coal Tattoo


Part 2 of the Center for Public Integrity’s remarkable expose on the black lung benefits process, “Breathless and Burdened,” is out this morning. And as the headline explains, it focuses on the medical unit at Johns Hopkins University which — in its work for coal companies — rarely finds black lung disease, helping the industry to defeat miners’ claims for federal benefits.

Investigative reporter Chris Hamby writes:

The Johns Hopkins University often receives attention for its medical discoveries and well-regarded school of public health, and its hospital recently was ranked the nation’s best by U.S. News and World Report.

What has remained in the shadows is the work of a small unit of radiologists who are professors at the medical school and physicians at the hospital. For 40 years, these doctors have been perhaps the most sought-after and prolific readers of chest films on behalf of coal companies seeking to defeat miners’ claims.

His story continues:

Their reports — seemingly ubiquitous and almost unwaveringly negative for black lung — have appeared in the cases of thousands of miners, and the doctors’ credentials, combined with the prestigious Johns Hopkins imprimatur, carry great weight. Their opinions often negate or outweigh whatever positive interpretations a miner can produce.

For the credibility that comes with these readings, which the doctors perform as part of their official duties at Johns Hopkins, coal companies are willing to pay a premium. For an X-ray reading, the university charges up to 10 times the rate miners typically pay their physicians.

Yet as part of its year-long investigation, the Center for Public Integrity said it found “strong evidence” that the deference the system gives to Johns Hopkins doctors “has contributed to unjust denials of miners’ claims.” Some of their evidence, especially regarding the top Hopkins’ doctor, Dr. Paul Wheeler:

— In the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which Wheeler read at least one X-ray, he never once found the severe form of the disease, complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Other doctors looking at the same X-rays found this advanced stage of the disease in 390 of these cases.

— Where other doctors saw black lung, Wheeler often saw evidence of another disease, most commonly tuberculosis or histoplasmosis — an illness caused by a fungus in bird and bat droppings. This was particularly true in cases involving the most serious form of the disease. In two-thirds of cases in which other doctors found complicated black lung, Wheeler attributed the masses in miners’ lungs to TB, the fungal infection or a similar disease.

— The criteria Wheeler applies when reading X-rays are at odds with positions taken by government research agencies, textbooks, peer-reviewed scientific literature and the opinions of many doctors who specialize in detecting the disease, including the chair of the American College of Radiology’s task force on black lung.

— Biopsies or autopsies repeatedly have proven Wheeler wrong. Though Wheeler suggests miners undergo biopsies — surgical procedures to remove a piece of the lung for examination — to prove their cases, such evidence is not required by law, is not considered necessary in most cases and can be medically risky. Still, in more than 100 cases decided since 2000 in which Wheeler offered negative readings, biopsies or autopsies provided undisputed evidence of black lung.

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Don Blankenship speaks – but not a lot of news

Mine Safety

The last time former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship made headlines speaking at a meeting of the Tug Valley Mining Institute, it was November 2008.  Most of us had never heard of the Upper Big Branch Mine, and 29 families were not missing a father, husband, brother or son. In that speech, as he sometimes does, Blankenship had some choice words for the newspaper where I work:

It is as great a pleasure for me to be criticized by the communists and the atheists of the Charleston Gazette as to be applauded by my best friends. Because I know they are wrong. People are cowering away from being criticized by people that are our enemies. Would we be upset if Osama bin Laden was critical of us?

Well, my invitation to last week’s mining institute dinner must have gotten lost in the mail. But WOWK-TV’s Alanna Autler got her hands on an invite, and her station made the most of it. They did several segments, and certainly promoted the heck out of their “EXCLUSIVE” interview with Blankenship. More power to her, I guess. Maybe it’s news just that Blankenship is adding public speaking engagements back into his portfolio, on top of the website where he’s been speaking his mind for the last year or so.

You can watch the two longer pieces here and here.

From my viewing of them, though, there wasn’t a lot of real news — but there were at least two interesting tidbits.

First, lots of folks have been wondering what Blankenship is up to with this McCoy Coal firm he’s involved with in Kentucky. We did hear some answers from him about that in the first of WOWK’s stories:

The biggest thing we’re doing is just trading coal, and trading equipment, buying and selling mine-related things, not mining any coal.

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MSHA issues first POV notices under new rule


Here’s the word just in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration announced today that three mining operations have been put on notice of a pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards under Section 104(e) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The POV screening is the first one conducted since MSHA’s revised Pattern of Violations rule went into effect on March 25, 2013. These revisions improve MSHA’s ability to act when it finds a pattern of violations.

The three mines that received POV notices are: Tram Energy LLC’s Mine No. 1 in Floyd County, Ky.; Brody Mining LLC’s Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, W.Va.; and Pocahontas Coal Company LLC’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. MSHA’s review for POV covered all 14,600 of the nation’s mines. The agency is still reviewing the injury records of several mines to determine if they should be considered for a POV notice based on this screening.

Under the Mine Act, MSHA is authorized to issue a POV notice to mine operators that demonstrate a disregard for the health and safety of miners through a pattern of significant and substantial violations. A POV notice, one of the agency’s toughest enforcement actions, is reserved for the mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety of miners. An S&S violation is one that is reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness. The Mine Act requires mines that receive POV notices to be issued withdrawal orders–effectively ceasing operations–for all S&S violations. After no mine was placed on POV for the first 33 years after the Mine Act went into effect, these POV notices mark the third year in a row that MSHA has used this critical tool to protect miners from serious hazards.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

MSHA’s new POV rule, which we will vigorously enforce, enhances protections for miners and shifts the responsibility for monitoring compliance and taking action to prevent POV enforcement actions to the operator.

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Shutdown over: MSHA is back on the job


Now that the Republican shutdown of the federal government is over, visitors this afternoon to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s website were greeted this this message:

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is open and MSHA welcomes back its employees.

I’m told that MSHA has resumed its regular program of mandated inspections at all of the nation’s mines. As we’ve reported before, there were four coal-mining deaths during the government shutdown. MSHA has updated its list of mining fatalities to reflect those incidents. So far this year, there have been 18 coal-mining deaths nationwide, worse than the pace at the same time last year.

Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

The bad news from Indiana has been confirmed: Another coal miner died on the job, this time at the Five Star Mining Co.’s Prosperity Mine in Pike County, Ind.  It happened at about 2:20 p.m. on Friday. Here’s the preliminary information from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration:

At approximately 2:20 pm (EST), a shuttle car driver on Unit No. 5 was tramming in a crosscut from entry 6 to entry 7. The car driver saw the victim and stopped. They talked a few seconds. The victim proceeded by the car and walked straight into the next crosscut between entries 7 and 8 thinking that the car driver would turn down entry 7 to go around the pillar. The victim told the car driver that he was in the clear. The car driver did not turn down entry No. 7 as the victim thought but continued forward through the crosscut between entries 7 and 8. The shuttle car pinned the victim between the car and the coal rib on the blind side of the shuttle car.

The miner killed was identified in the MSHA preliminary report as 59-year-old Larry Schwartz.

This is the 4th fatal coal-mining accident since the federal government shutdown began on Oct. 1 forcing MSHA to furlough 1,400 of its 2,355 staffers nationwide and end its regular inspections in favor of “targeted” inspections of high-hazard mines.

Keep in mind that the government shutdown also has stopped MSHA’s work on a long-delayed set of rules aimed at requiring mine operators to install proximity devices, equipment aimed at helping to prevent crushing and pinning deaths in underground mines.

MSHA gets more attention as shutdown drags on


We’ve been writing for several days now about the impact of the Republican government shutdown on the ability of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct its regular — and legally required — mine inspections, a vital part of MSHA’s duty to protect the health and safety of the nation’s coal miners (see here, here and here).

Well, today, the issue got even more attention. First, we heard from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who delivered a House floor speech about the issue, saying:

I stand here today to remind my colleagues, and the public, that cuts in government funding and government programs have consequences — sometimes deadly.

It is a lesson we learned in 2006 when annual coal mining deaths soared to 45, a 10-year high, reversing an 80-year trend of steadily falling fatalities – a trend attributed, in part, to years of underfunding the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It is a lesson we should heed now. This year, as of September 4th, 14 coal miners had died on the job in our country. And this past weekend, three coal miners lost their lives at work over three consecutive days — including, one miner in West Virginia.

Think about that: In first nine months of the year, fourteen coal miners perished on the job. In the first nine days of the government shutdown, three coal miners have perished. Mr. Speaker, even one death is too many.

Rep. Rahall continued:

WV MINE EXPLOSIONNo one has linked these recent deaths directly to the government shutdown.  But the inability of this Congress to pass a simple bill to fund all the operations of our government has resulted in cutbacks of routine inspections that are essential to the complex system of safety oversight of this complex industry.

I hope that everyone in the coal industry — from the CEOs to the office staff, to security guards, to the miners themselves — will redouble their vigilance and take every possible step to ensure health and safety.  

And I urge my colleagues to abandon this ridiculous political showdown that is undercutting the safety in our mines, our industrial facilities, our food chain, and so much more.  

This is not a slow down.  It is not a slim down.  

This is a politically driven shutdown and it has real and dangerous consequences for the people who put their faith in us to provide them with basic services, to ensure their well-being, to protect their lives, to simply do the job we were elected to do – to lead. 

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Can miners afford for MSHA to miss inspections?

Obama Mine Explosion

The weekend news that three U.S. coal miners died in as many days — one each in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming — brought a strong response from federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main:

Three miners killed on three consecutive days is extremely troubling.  The fact that that this occurred over the weekend, when there may be a greater expectation an MSHA inspector would not be present, is a red flag.

But with more than half of his agency’s staff furloughed during the Republican government shutdown, there isn’t necessarily much Joe Main can do. In the Labor Department release issued yesterday, government officials were reduced to issuing a plea that mine operators work harder to comply with safety and health regulations:

Following three coal mine fatalities during Oct. 4-6, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is urging the mining industry to step up its compliance with safety and health regulations under the Mine Safety and Health Act and other applicable laws.

At the same time, some folks in the media and elsewhere are questioning what the government shutdown has to with these latest three coal-mining deaths. Even the usually insightful Dave Jamieson at Huffington Post fell for that, making a point to put this high up in his story yesterday:

There’s no indication that the shutdown prevented inspections at any of the mines. In fact, a Labor Department spokesperson told HuffPost that investigators had been in two of the three mines just prior to the accidents, since the companies were already on targeted inspection lists.

Updated: In a new story, the Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher spends quite a lot of time letting mining industry officials downplay the potential impacts of the insist that the government shutdown has nothing to do with on safety at their operations and on MSHA’s presence at their mines:

Industry officials said it wasn’t clear whether the shutdown has affected safety of the nation’s mines. “It’s very hard, absent any data, for us to determine what if any impact their staff reductions have had on safety,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. He said companies haven’t reduced staff assigned to mine safety.

Several coal companies said that MSHA inspectors were still a regular presence at mines. “Federal and state inspectors continue to appear at our mining operations despite the government shutdown,” said Kim Link, a spokeswoman for Arch Coal Inc., the nation’s No. 2 coal company by production.

Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources Inc., said 53 MSHA inspections took place at the company’s mines on Oct. 2, the second day of the shutdown. “It doesn’t matter if it’s government business-as-usual or government shutting down. We intend to run right and run as safely as we can,” he said.

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Three more coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

We had the story late Friday afternoon on the Gazette website about this sad news:

A worker was killed early Friday afternoon at a CONSOL Energy operation in Marshall County, officials said. It was the sixth West Virginia coal-mining death so far in 2013.

The miner suffered a head injury and died on the way to the hospital, said Leslie Fitzwater, spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

The incident occurred shortly before 1 p.m. at Pittsburgh-based CONSOL’s McElroy Mine near Moundsville, Fitzwater said.

The Wheeling paper had the obituary notice:

4a63e17d-c4e4-4cc0-9106-32732f84ba36KING, Roger R., 62, of Moundsville died Friday at McElroy Mine, Cameron Portal.

He was born September 6, 1951 in Sutton, WV.

Roger was a very dedicated coal miner for the past 44 years. The last 17 years of service was at Consol Energy, McElroy Mine, Cameron Portal, where he was the Chief Longwall Maintenance Coordinator.

He was a member of Moundsville Baptist Church, ME-MMA Association, Moundsville Country Club, a member and former committeeman with the UMWA, and a U.S. Army veteran.

Roger enjoyed squirrel hunting, fishing, deer hunting, morrell mushroom hunting, growing vegetables in his garden, going on vacation with his wife to Pigeon Forge, TN, spending time with his family, and playing with his grandson.

And then over the weekend, there was more bad news:

A White County Coal miner died Saturday at an underground mine when a cart he was operating landed on top of him after he lost control of it and struck the wall of the mine, the county’s coroner said.

Robert Smith, 47, of Norris City, was pronounced dead at 1:59 p.m., Coroner Chris Marsh said. The preliminary cause of death is massive blunt trauma, though results of an autopsy Sunday are pending. Nothing has been ruled out, but Marsh said Smith did not appear to have a medical issue that might have contributed to the crash or his death.

Also, federal and state mine officials are investigating, including the possibility of a mechanical failure in the cart, Marsh said. He described the cart as a golf cart modified for underground mine operations.

The mine, commonly known as the Pattiki Mine, just outside Carmi, is owned by White County Coal LLC, a subsidiary of Alliance Resource Partners LP. Spokespersons at either company could not be reached.

UPDATED: MSHA just announced there was a third coal-mining death on Sunday in Wyoming:

At the Bridger Coal mine in Wyoming, a dozer operator was killed Oct. 6 when the dozer went over a 150-foot highwall in the early hours of Sunday morning. When the victim did not report in at the end of his regular shift, the operator began to search and found the dozer and victim at the bottom of the highwall. 

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Friday roundup, Oct. 4, 2013

Colombia Miners Photo Gallery

Miners look toward the camera as they stand in the mine shaft of La Flauta coal mine in Tausa, Colombia, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. If La Flauta is closed “everyone here would be left without work,” said Tausa Mayor Javier Pachon. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

The always interesting Today in Energy from the Energy Information Administration (which is continuing to work through Oct. 11 during the government shutdown) had an interesting post this week headlined Top four U.S. coal companies supplied more than half of U.S. coal production in 2011:

In the past two years, more than half of U.S. coal production was attributable to the top four coal producers, the result of changes in regional production as well as decades-long trends towards the concentration of coal production around the top few companies. Peabody Energy Corporation, Arch Coal Inc., Alpha Natural Resources LLC, and Cloud Peak Energy together supplied 575 million tons, or 52% of total U.S. coal production, in 2011, while more than 500 other companies supplied the remaining 48%. By comparison, the fifth largest coal producer in 2012, Consol Energy Company, contributed 34 million tons, or 35% less than fourth-place Cloud Peak Energy.

Here’s their chart:


Meanwhile, SNL Financial reported:

Employment among U.S. coal miners plummeted by roughly 19% in the first quarter compared to the end of 2012, according to federal data, with job losses accelerating nationwide as persistently low natural gas prices and increasing coal plant retirements cut domestic coal burn and producers come to the conclusion that the current market downturn may be worse the ever before.

U.S. coal mine employment as calculated by average number of employees of coal operators and contractors has fallen from 143,463 in 2011, a cyclical peak, to 111,843 in the first quarter, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. More than 10,000 underground and 15,000 surface mining jobs have disappeared since the 2011 peak.

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7.5x6.5......Widow with son...

Caitlin O’Dell and her son, Andrew, made a surprise visit to the state mine safety board meeting to lobby for a new proximity device rule.

On Thursday morning, members of the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety were settling in for a monthly meeting. They gathered in a conference room at the Days Hotel in Flatwoods. Hot coffee and pastries were provided.

Out in the hall, a baby was crying. Someone got up and closed the door, so the infant wouldn’t disturb the board as members discussed whether West Virginia’s coal mines should be required to install “proximity detection” systems that safety experts say can protect underground miners from being crushed or pinned by continuous mining machines, scoops and shuttle cars.

At these meetings, board members don’t have nameplates. They don’t go around the table and introduce themselves. But they tell audience members to state their name and who they represent.

At this particular meeting, there was a surprise guest.

“My name is Caitlin O’Dell,” the young woman told board members.  “I’m the widow in one of the fatality cases that’s on your agenda today.”

The board’s six members are seasoned coal industry officials and United Mine Workers representatives. They’ve known and met many families of miners who have died on the job. But in this context — at the meeting where they help decide what protections West Virginia will give its miners — it’s pretty unusual for board members to have to face a real live family member.

You might think such a confrontation would prompt something different out of the board, something more than the inaction that we’ve seen for many months on important issues facing board members. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. Just check out our story in the Gazette, headlined Despite widow’s plea, board rejects ‘proximity’ device rules. As we explained:

Board members expressed their sympathies to Mrs. O’Dell. They admired her 9-month-old son, and they thanked her for coming to “put a face” on the issue. Then, the board’s three industry representatives voted to block two different motions from their United Mine Workers counterparts to move forward with “proximity detection” rules.

Caitlin O’Dell sure tried. She told her story to the board. And as you probably guessed, and as we all learned later in the meeting, the baby that was crying in the hall was her son. Eventually, she brought him in so the board members could meet him, too. As we detailed in today’s story:

Before they voted on a rule to require “proximity detection” equipment in underground coal mines, Caitlin O’Dell wanted to introduce members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety to her son.

odellAndrew O’Dell never got to meet his father. He was born last Dec. 21, three weeks after Steven O’Dell was crushed to death by a maintenance “scoop” vehicle in the Alpha Natural Resources coal mine where he worked.

Caitlin O’Dell came to Flatwoods to urge mine safety board members to require all of the state’s underground coal operations to install systems that would shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers. She believes such a system would have saved her husband’s life, and could spare other families the pain hers has suffered.

“I’m here to ask you to stop history from repeating itself,” Caitlin O’Dell told board members. “You have an opportunity today to change history for the next family. It’s too late for mine.”

But none of that was enough for board members to act on a proposal that, basically, has been on the table for at least five years, since a team of top West Virginia mine inspectors recommended the state adopt a rule to require all coal mines to install proximity devices on mobile underground mining equipment.

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Shutdown: Inspections cut, permit reviews slowed

Budget Battle

A sign is posted on a barricade in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama’s health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As everyone knows by now, the federal government is in the process of closing down for reasons that The Guardian probably explained most clearly:

A shutdown of the US federal government, the first in nearly two decades, was looming close on Monday night as Congress careered toward a midnight deadline with little prospect of a deal to avert the crisis caused by a determined bloc of rightwingers in the House of Representatives.

Today’s Gazette story localizing the impacts, Shutdown would bring furloughs, closures to W.Va., explains some of the more important coal-related impacts:

Under a shutdown, active staff at labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration would be cut from 2,355 to 966. MSHA, though, would continue “to perform certain activities which, if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation’s mines.

But instead of performing legally mandated regular inspections at all of the nation’s underground and surface mines and mining facilities, MSHA inspectors would visit only certain operations.

“MSHA will perform targeted inspections at mines which have been prioritized based on the mine’s history of the hazards that put miners’ lives at risk,” agency chief Joe Main said in his contingency plan, dated Sept. 10. “Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury.”

Main said that “if unforeseen emergencies, such as a mine disaster” occurred, additional employees would be identified to work.

 You can read more yourself in the shutdown contingency plans for MSHA, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other agencies.

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How coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

On Friday, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration released the report of its investigation into the February death of Glen L. Clutter Jr., 51, of Baxter, who was killed at CONSOL Energy’s Loveridge Mine in Marion County, W.Va.  Here’s the report’s overview section:

On February 12, 2013, at approximately 9:35 p.m., Glen Clutter (victim), a 51-year-old general inside laborer and acting motorman, with 31 years of mining experience sustained fatal injuries. A slate bar struck the victim as he attempted to re-rail a supply car. Clutter and Scott Shay, General Inside Laborer, were attempting to re-rail the first of four cars that had de-railed. The car shifted and the slate bar struck Clutter on the right side of his face and on the forehead. The accident was caused by the failure to assure the supply car was secured or blocked against motion before it was lifted, failure to perform adequate task training, failure to maintain the track, and failure to perform an adequate preshift examination.

Here’s what MSHA says happened:

On February 12, 2013, the afternoon shift started at 4:00 p.m. Kevin Carter, Shift Foreman (Sugar Run) assigned Clutter and Scott Shay, General Inside Laborers, to transport supplies from Sugar Run to Miracle Run. Clutter and Shay entered the mine at the Miracle Run Portal shortly after 4:00 p.m. They each took a locomotive (motor) and travelled from Miracle Run to Sugar Run. Shay operated the No. 55B motor (lead) and Clutter was operating the No. 51 motor (tail). They were delayed at No. 55 block near the Sugar Run Portal bottom due to water over the track. Upon arrival at Sugar Run, Clutter and Shay spoke with Tim Shaffer, Shift Foreman (Sugar Run). Shaffer told them to transport a trip of supplies needed for the Metz Portal to Miracle Run and bring back empty supply cars. The Metz motor crews would then take these supplies from Miracle Run to the Metz Portal. Shaffer instructed Clutter and Shay to evaluate the weight of the contents of the supply cars and determine if it was possible to transport everything in one trip. Clutter and Shay decided the supplies needed taken in two trips of four cars.

The slope crew dropped the first four cars down the tail track. Clutter and Shay retrieved the four cars on Sugar Run bottom. Before leaving, they spoke with Shaffer again to decide where to place the empty supply cars when they returned. Shaffer instructed them to place the empty supply cars in the crossover entry. Clutter and Shay coupled the first trip and proceeded to Miracle Run where they transferred the supplies to the Metz supply motor crew. There were no issues encountered on the first trip. They then picked up six empty supply cars to take back to Sugar Run. Upon returning to Sugar Run, they put the empty cars in the crossover and waited for the slope supply crew to drop the cars for their second trip. The slope crew dropped the other cars into the mine. Clutter and Shay discussed where to place the cars on the Miracle Run side. It was decided to place the cars from the second trip in the 60-pound spur at Miracle Run. They believed the 60-pound track spur was more level than the loaded track, and Clutter was concerned the trip could get away from them due to its weight and placing the trip in the spur with one motor. Clutter and Shay hooked onto the supplies and proceeded towards Miracle Run.

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UMWA miner Ricky Rose, who survived the 2001 disaster, showed me his truck — decorated to honor his fellow miners who were killed — during a visit to Brookwood, Ala., a few years ago.

Twelve years ago today, a series of explosions rocked the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala., killing 13 coal miners.  At the time, it was the worst coal-mining disaster in the U.S. in 17 years.

Unfortunately, since then we’ve had Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch.  During a visit to Brookwood in 2006, I attended a memorial service for those who died at No. 5, and I certainly recall what Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMWA District 20, told the crowd:

The legacy of Brookwood remains unfinished.  It can happen again without constant vigilance.

What’s next in the Upper Big Branch criminal probe?

R. Booth Goodwin II

When U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin stood before the local media Tuesday afternoon for a brief press conference following the sentencing of former Massey official David C. Hughart, the first question was pretty predictable. I didn’t write down the exact wording, but it was something to this effect: Are you going after Don Blankenship? Goodwin’s response was pretty predictable as well:

We are going to take this investigation wherever it leads.

But really, the fact that Goodwin got that statement out was actually kind of important and interesting. I’m not sure if everyone really picked up on this. But rewind to February, when Hughart surprised everyone and implicated the former Massey CEO in a plot to cover up serious safety problems at the company’s coal operations. Describing the aftermath of that courtroom drama, which came during Hughart’s plea hearing, I explained:

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin did issue a press release yesterday, but it was pretty modest in tone, and Goodwin declined to answer further question or to make any of the statements he’s made before about how his office is going to follow the evidence where it leads, and bring to justice whoever was responsible for the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5, 2010, Upper Big Branch explosion.

There’s no doubt that Hughart’s statement about Blankenship was a little awkward for Goodwin and for Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. They really weren’t counting on Hughart going off the reservation to name names the way he did.  And prosecutors weren’t really much interested in engaging about what Hughart alleged — at least not at that point. (Blankenship, as we’ve noted before, has denied any wrongdoing).

But perhaps now Goodwin and Ruby are feeling a little bit better about the status of things and about where their criminal probe is headed.

Now, some folks are pretty focused on the fact that his recent drug arrest seriously erodes Hughart’s ability to be a very helpful witness against anyone higher up at Massey.  But given what was already known about his departure from employment at Massey, it’s not really clear Hughart was going to end up testifying much in any future court proceedings anyway. And it’s also likely that the folks who will end up testifying if there are someday more trials against others at Massey are not people whose cooperation with prosecutors has been revealed yet to the public and the press. I asked Goodwin about this during his press conference, and he responded:

You want to have all of the witnesses that you can. We’ve identified witnesses who were in a position to know about this.


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Report: Budget cuts threaten mine safety

Mine Explosion Anniversary

A new report out today from the Center for Effective Government describes concerns that continued cuts in the federal budget threaten the agencies that are supposed to protect worker health and safety across our country. The report, available online here, focuses on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but also contains the following warning regarding the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) budget would see a small decrease over presequester FY 2013 Continuing Resolution levels if the president’s request is enacted. In the last several years, MSHA has seen fairly stable funding with only slight decreases since Republicans took the House in 2010. However, factoring in the impact of the sequester and inflation, MSHA is funded in FY 2013 at levels slightly lower than the last full fiscal year of the Bush administration (about $359 million with the sequester versus $361 million in FY 2008).

The report notes that, the last time MSHA’s budget was this low, the agency ended up missing many of its required inspections and the Inspector General criticized the quality of the inspections that agency did conduct. The report warns:

The House bill is anticipated to break with what has been bipartisan support for this agency that helps workers in a highly dangerous field of work and bring MSHA’s budget down to levels far lower than during the Bush administration.

The report continues:

MSHA’s coal program has seen substantial increases in funding over the last decade. Although overall there have been substantial reductions in fatalities – from over 1,000 a year in the early part of the 20th century to 37 and 36 a year, respectively, in 2011 and 2012 – major recent disasters in the last decade have highlighted the need for continued robust regulation and enforcement. For instance, the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in January 2006 and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 in April 2010 were followed by the appropriation of additional resources for MSHA.

Despite the uptick in enforcement resources, there are still challenges. Among the most notable is the continuing problem of black lung disease. According to MSHA: “Studies conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and MSHA in 2005, 2006, 2007 of chest x-ray surveillance by NIOSH indicated that the prevalence rate of CWP [coal workers pneumoconiosis; i.e. black lung] is increasing in our Nation’s coal miners. Even more disturbing is that advanced and seriously debilitating cases of CWP are now seen in younger and younger miners.”

Why coal miners die on the job

Mine Explosion

Today, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration made public the report of its investigation into the Feb. 7 death of a miner at Metinvest Group’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. MSHA investigators concluded:

The accident occurred because the mine level West side landing gate safety switches of the service hoist were tampered with and the hoist was being operated in an unsafe condition. While the gate safety switches were inoperative, miners and equipment were allowed to work on the hoist which exposed them to the hazardous condition. The hoist initiated movement with little to no warning while the safety gate was in the open position.

We’ve written about similar findings before, based on the report issued previously by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training:

An underground mine elevator where a worker was killed in February had a key safety device deactivated and had not been inspected by the mine operator for at least a year, state investigators say in a new report.

The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training cited Pocahontas Coal Co., owned by Ukraine-based Metinvest B.V., in the Feb. 7 death at the company’s Affinity Mine near Sophia, Raleigh County.

Edward L. Finney, 43, of Bluefield, Va., was killed while he was unloading trash from a mine scoop vehicle’s bucket, which was positioned on the platform of the elevator, known as a hoist. The scoop fell on Finney when another worker raised the platform and the platform started moving up the elevator shaft.

State investigators said the hoist was equipped with a switch that should have kept the platform from moving while Finney was on it with its gates open.

But, investigators said, the safety switch “had been intentionally defeated.” The electrical-magnetic switch had been removed from the gate and taped to the gate’s frame assembly, giving the control system a false indication that the gate was closed when it was actually open, state investigators said in their report. After the accident, another worker saw the switch taped to the frame assembly and removed the tape, allowing the switch to fall to the floor, the state report said.

“The accident is a direct result of the intentional defeating of the west gate safety switch,” state investigators said. “This condition violates a health or safety rule and is of a serious nature and involves a fatality.”

State investigators also found that Affinity mine management had not performed safety or electrical examinations of the hoist equipment for at least a year. Safety examinations are required every 24 hours and electrical exams at least once per week.


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Still more inaction on mine safety in W.Va.


It was pretty interesting last week listening to one of West Virginia’s mine safety inspectors lament the lack of any state regulations that would have allowed him to require life-saving equipment be installed at the Affinity Mine before someone got killed.

McKennis Browning, an inspector at large with the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, is pictured above, explaining the problem to members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety:

We don’t have anything to do with proximity devices. We don’t have anything to do with strobe lights. I think that’s something we need to look at.

But as we reported in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, the state has looked at proximity devices — and looked at them and looked at them and looked at them. What state regulators haven’t done yet is actually require them:

West Virginia officials have never acted on a five-year-old recommendation to adopt a rule that could end one of the most common type of coal-mining accidents: being crushed by a piece of underground equipment.

In September 2008, a team of state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training inspectors recommended the state require all underground mine operators to install “proximity detection” systems to shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers.

Officials have never adopted such a rule. Some mine operators are adding the systems on their own. State inspectors sometimes mandate proximity detection equipment as an additional safety measure — but only after miners are killed.

“It’s a shame we have to wait until we have a fatality,” said state mine safety director Eugene White, “but that’s the only avenue we have to require them.”

As we’ve reported many times before (see here, here and here), West Virginia political leaders talk a good game when it comes to protecting the health and safety of our state’s coal miners … But the actions they don’t take speak far louder than those words. The 2014 legislative session is just around the corner — Will Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduce legislation to require proximity devices in West Virginia’s underground coal mines?  And even if he does, will the effort turn out any better than the state’s efforts to beef up methane monitoring rules?

More inaction on Gov. Tomblin’s mine safety law

Earl Ray Tomblin

Here’s the latest on inaction by West Virginia officials on coal-mine safety, from today’s Gazette:

A regulation to implement a key portion of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s year-old mine safety legislation won’t be submitted for final legislative approval until at least 2015, officials said Tuesday.

The Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety allowed its proposed rule to expire without finalizing it — a move that means board members must essentially start the process over from the beginning.

“The proposal is expired, so we have to re-propose that rule,” board administrator Joel Watts told board members during a meeting in Charleston.

Watts said that means whatever final rule the board eventually comes up with won’t be submitted to lawmakers next year and would have to wait until the 2015 session for legislative approval.

The rules at issue are needed to allow the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training to enforce a tightening of the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

Under the governor’s bill, the mine safety board — made up of industry and labor representatives appointed by the governor — was supposed to issue the rules by October 2012.

That’s right … these rules were ordered by the Legislature to be written by October 2012 — and now it’s looking like it will be early 2015 before they are submitted to lawmakers for final approval.

We’ve written about this many times before (see here, here and here).

At yesterday’s meeting, board administrator Joel Watts had the matter on the agenda — again — and tried to explain to board members that their inaction so far has put them back at square one of the rulemaking process. When he asked if board members wanted to discuss the issue, the board members all just kind of looked down and tried to stay quiet — eventually quietly agreeing that they’d rather move on to the next item on the agenda.

Tomblin administration Deputy Commerce Secretary Joshua Jarrell attended the meeting, and was sitting at the head of the table. But he didn’t speak up to express any concern on the administration’s behalf about the continued inaction by the board, whose members are labor and industry representatives appointed by the governor.

You have to start to wonder … maybe this methane monitoring language wasn’t really that important after all. Maybe it wasn’t a big safety advance, meaning that the overall legislation wasn’t as great as Gov. Tomblin, his handlers and the legislative leadership tried to make everyone believe it was. I mean, if it was that important, wouldn’t the administration be making sure that these rules got written so the methane monitoring language could be implemented in the state’s coal mines?

Another coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion

Here’s today’s bad news from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, out of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin:

Thursday night, Thunder Basin Coal’s Black Thunder Mine reportedly experienced a fatality when a power shovel was traveling up a ramp and rolled back, striking a pickup truck. One miner in the truck was killed, with another trapped in the truck.  The second miner was taken to the hospital, but apparently not seriously injured. MSHA has responded and will launch an investigation.

This death, at an operation controlled by Arch Coal, is the 13th U.S. coal-mining fatality in 2013.

1 dead, 2 hurt in Kentucky coalfields

Mine Explosion

Here’s the sad news out of Kentucky, via WFP’s Erica Peterson:

Fifty-six year old Lenny D. Gilliam of Appalachia, Virginia died this afternoon at the Huff Creek Mine in Harlan County. The mine is operated by Lone Mountain Processing, a subsidiary of Arch Coal.

The Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing says:

Preliminary reports indicate the side of a coal pillar burst as the continuous miner machine was operating, causing the miners to be trapped.

Two other coal miners were injured in the accident; their condition is still unknown.

Two other miners–Terry Scott and Johnny Nantz–were injured in the accident; their injuries don’t appear to be life-threatening.

This is Kentucky’s second mining-related fatality this year, and the nation’s 12th coal mining death.

The Associated Press points out:

The death occurred a day after federal officials cited a drop in the number of underground mining fatalities attributed to roof and wall collapses. From 2003 to 2007, 28 miners died in underground roof or wall collapses, compared with 19 between 2008 and 2012, according to a release Monday from MSHA.

MSHA said 377 miners nationwide were injured in roof or wall collapses last year.


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