Coal Tattoo

In late January, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a press release that touted an “all-time low” in U.S. mining fatality rates. Oddly enough, the news release didn’t include the actual rate. Only when asked for the actual figures did MSHA say that the agency was talking about all mining sectors and that the preliminary figure was 0.0111 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. MSHA said at the time that breakdowns for the coal and metal/nonmetal sectors weren’t available.

Well, yesterday, MSHA finally released the breakdowns, in another news release that again touted “the lowest fatality and injury rates in the history of U.S. mining. ”  The MSHA release went on to explain:

In 2012, the fatality rate was .0107 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. The rate of reported injuries was 2.56 per 200,000 hour worked. These reductions replace the prior year’s record historical low rates.

Although the number of mines in the U.S. decreased slightly (from 14,176 in 2011 to 14,058 in 2012), the number of miners increased from 381,209 to 387,671. Thirty-five miners died on the job in 2012, tying the record low number of deaths in mining set in 2009. The number of citations and orders MSHA issued fell from 157,052 in 2011 to 140,007 in 2012, an 11 percent decrease.

But if you read on, and look at the more detailed figures that MSHA posted here, you’ll also see that this was not a record year for death rates in the coal industry. Coal’s death rate in 2012 was 0.0151 per 200,000 hours worked. That’s slightly better than the 0.0156 recorded in 2011 and good enough for second lowest in history, behind the 2009 rate of 0.148. MSHA’s only comment on that appeared to be this statement, included on their statistical page:

MSHA continues to work to bring fatalities down through strong enforcement, active outreach and education, and technical support to the mining industry.

Sure, the figures show improvement — and there’s absolutely no question that (as some industry officials like to remind us) the numbers of deaths in the coal-mining industry are a fraction of what they were decades ago. But let’s not forget that we’ve had eight coal-mining deaths so far across the country in 2013. Deaths are currently ahead of last year’s pace. Five of the deaths so far this year occurred in West Virginia. Between 2002 and so far in 2013, West Virginia recorded 128 coal-mining deaths, more than any other state. The next closest was Kentucky, with 86 deaths.

MSHA, of course, is in the midst of a public relations campaign to celebrate the passage of the 1977 amendments to the federal mine safety law, and that showed in yesterday’s press release:

These preliminary numbers clearly show that actions undertaken by MSHA and the mining industry continue to move mine safety in the right direction, with improvements in compliance with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, and a reduction in injury and fatality rates.

But that’s really not the issue, and MSHA chief Joe Main knows that. Just look at what Assistant Secretary Main said in February after a string of deaths in West Virginia’s coalfields:

The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

The dispute today in the world of coal-mine safety is whether our society will truly make it unacceptable for coal miners to die on the job, or whether incremental improvements that barely move the needle on fatality rates will be good enough. You can see this clearly — and oddly enough — if you compare the comments of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin with those of CONSOL Energy President Nicholas DeIuliis.

Gov. Tomblin has stuck with his line about how “accidents do occur,” even when given the opportunity to clarify and to argue that any coal-mining death is not acceptable. CONSOL’s DeIuliis, on the other hand, made it clear again recently that his company’s goal is — and the entire industry’s goal should be — zero deaths and injuries:

We can’t be satisfied with just incremental improvements. The only acceptable result for everyone in the industry and everyone in the room should be zero fatalities and zero injuries.

 

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, April 5, 2010

Three years ago this afternoon, an explosion tore through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. Twenty-nine coal miners died and two others were seriously injured.

For many of us, it’s just another day. At best, it’s a time to revisit the disaster and ask questions about why more hasn’t been done to prevent another one — or to stop the needless one-by-one death of miners across the coalfields. All too soon, April 5 will be just another date marked on the long, disgraceful calendar of this nation’s record of preventable mine explosions, fires and other disasters. As Sen. Robert C. Byrd said after the previous disasters at Sago and Aracoma:

First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster.

But for those who lost loved ones, April 5 is now forever the day that they became a widow or an orphan, the day they lost their son or their best friend.  Here’s the list of those men who died so needlessly three years ago today:

Carl Calvin Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Gregory Steven Brock

Kenneth Allan Chapman

Robert E. Clark

Cory Thomas Davis

Charles Timothy Davis

Michael Lee Elswick

William Ildon Griffith

Steven Harrah

Edward Dean Jones

Richard K. Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Lee Maynor

Nicholas Darrell McCroskey

James E. “Eddie” Mooney

Adam Keith Morgan

Rex L. Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard D. Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel R. Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Dale Skeens

Benny Ray Willingham

Ricky Workman

And here’s a slideshow that the Gazette’s Doug Imbrogno previously put together with photos of all of the miners:

Mine helmets and painted crosses sit at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Montcoal, W.Va. The memorial represents the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Friday will mark the 3rd anniversary of the massive explosion that killed 29 coal miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.  Several events are planned to commemorate the disaster (see here and here), and we can expect the usual round of statements from political leaders about how much they’ve done to ensure nothing like this ever happens again — and to make sure every coal miner gets to go home to their family after every shift.

How well are we really doing? To answer that question, you might turn first to the op-ed piece that was in this past Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, written by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer and his associate, Beth Spence, who worked on the independent investigation of Upper Big Branch.  They explain:

As we said in our independent report released in May 2011, the explosion was no accident. Those 29 men were killed because officials of a rogue coal company disregarded worker safety in the drive to produce coal. But that’s not the entire story. The UBB miners also died because regulators — both from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training — abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operator complied with minimum fundamental safety requirements.

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd once said, “The test of a great country such as ours is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk … Those men and women who bravely labor in such dangerous occupations as coal mining to provide our country with critical energy should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety.”

Unfortunately, our country is failing Sen. Byrd’s test. In the first quarter of 2013, eight miners were killed in the nation’s mines, five in West Virginia. This compares with five during the same period of 2012, two in 2011 and two in 2010. Instead of trending downward, deaths are increasing.

Their op-ed notes that the state of West Virginia has really done very little to improve its mine safety system since Upper Big Branch. The minor reforms contained in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “comprehensive” legislation are mostly stalled, as we’ve reported in the Gazette here, here, here, and here. As McAteer and Spence say:

The state’s one accomplishment has been to implement a drug-testing program, which was promoted by the coal industry and which had absolutely nothing to do with the deaths of the UBB miners.

On the federal level, their op-ed explains:

The U.S. Congress has done even less. Before his death, Sen. Byrd introduced legislation aimed at serial safety violators like Massey Energy, which operated UBB. The bill went nowhere, as has subsequent safety legislation. Bills recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate stand little chance of passage. Republicans and Democrats appear to be engaged in an endless debate as to whether to strengthen legislation or ensure that current laws are enforced.

 

Continue reading…

How coal miners die on the job

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has just issued the report of its investigation into the July 2012 death of Johnny Mack Bryant II, a 35-year- old coal miner from Lenore, W.Va., at Coal River Mining LLC’s Fork Creek No. 10 Mine near Sumerco, Boone County. Here’s the summary of what happened:

On July 27, 2012, at approximately 4:20 a.m., Johnny Mack Bryant II, a 35-year- old coal miner from Lenore, West Virginia, was fatally injured while preparing to load the trailing cable onto a Joy 12CM12 continuous mining machine on the No. 2 Section. Mr. Bryant was pinned between the conveyor boom of the machine and the coal rib while the continuous mining machine was being moved.

The accident was caused by failure to follow a provision of the mine’s approved roof control plan. The “General Safety Precautions” portion of the approved plan prohibits anyone from being along either side of the continuous mining machine while being moved. The precaution requires the continuous mining machine’s pump motor to be de-energized while the trailing cable is being loaded or unloaded.

Let’s look more closely at one of the “root causes” of this death, according to MSHA:

The foreman did not examine the surroundings of the continuous mining machine before starting and tramming the machine because he was preoccupied by the continuous mining machine cable and the victim was observed leaving the area.

The corrective action? Here’s what MSHA said:

The continuous mining machine was fitted with a Prox 1 proximity detection system on August 18, 2012. Five persons on the section are required to carry the transmitters: two continuous mining machine operators, two roof bolting machine operators, and the section foreman.

Interestingly, though, it took the company a while to figure out that they needed to ensure the proximity detection system would also protect maintenance workers like the one who died at this mine. According to MSHA:

Maintenance personnel are now required to wear the transmitters when the continuous mining machine is being operated or trammed from place to place. An addendum to the roof control plan was submitted and approved on March 19, 2013, by the Acting District Manager. The addendum says, “On miners equipped with the Proximity system, Production and Maintenance personnel will utilize the proximity system when operating or moving the miners.”\

Just by way of update, we still haven’t seen MSHA move to finalize rules to require proximity devices to prevent these kinds of needless deaths.

Report: More work needed on coal-mine rescue

There’s a new report out today from the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council.  It’s called Improving Self-Escape from Underground Coal Mines, and here’s the conclusion:

Although recent advances in mining research and practices have improved the safety and health of underground coal miners and extensive rescue strategies are in place, more coordinated planning and training are needed to better prepare miners to escape in the event of a mine emergency … For self-escape, miners need working knowledge of their surroundings, appropriate equipment and technology, and effective communication and decision-making skills …  Successful self-escape is not a solo effort, and it begins well before an emergency occurs.  Coordinated planning, training, technology use, and research strategies across mine operations are needed to empower mine workers with the ability to self-escape.  

After the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006, we published a number of stories about problems with the nation’s mine rescue system (see here, here and here, for example). More recently, we’ve also focused on problems with the most widely-used SCSRs (see here and here). West Virginia’s Legislature acted and Congress, of course, responded with passage of mine rescue reforms contained in the Miner Act.

Now, a committee appointed by the National Research Council has recommended that more be done, including:

— Operators and federal agencies should make systematic, regular efforts to collect and analyze information from drills and escape situations and make outcomes and lessons learned available to stakeholders for future improvements.

— Both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) should review their operational requirements for emergency supplies of breathable air, and NIOSH should allocate funds for research and development to improve the functionality of breathable air devices. These improved devices should resolve problems with verbal communication, device weight and size, changeover or air replenishment in toxic environments, and adequate vision.

— NIOSH and MSHA should accelerate efforts to develop other technologies that enhance miners’ ability to escape, such as devices that improve communications among miners and between miners and the surface, real-time gas monitors, and fail-safe tracking mechanisms.

— NIOSH and MSHA should re-examine their technology approval and certification process to ensure they are not deterring innovation in relation to self-escape technologies.

— More research is needed to create self-escape materials, training, and protocols for effective decision making during a mine emergency.

— Training should be developed that emphasizes mastery of competency standards rather than duration and class time.

— NIOSH should expand their safety culture efforts to inform the mining industry.

Committee chair William Marras, professor in the integrated systems engineering department at Ohio State University, Columbus, said:

Escaping during the early stages of a mine emergency is critical, and every emergency has different circumstances, resources, and physical and psychological demands. Many improvements in mine safety, especially regulation, have historically followed major mine disasters.  A proactive, integrated approach is needed to improve the best chances for success.

The bad news came in late last evening, as we reported in this morning’s Gazette:

A miner was killed Wednesday evening at a Boone County coal operation, the fifth death in West Virginia’s coal industry in as many weeks.

Details were sketchy, but a spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training said that a roof bolter died from injuries received at Newtown Energy’s Peerless Rachel Mine at Racine.

Here’s the information released so far by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about the incident at Peerless Rachel, which is controlled by Patriot Coal:

At about 5:45 pm today, a miner was seriously injured when a rock fell from the roof of the mine and struck him. The miner was a roof bolter operator on the Unit 1 section of the mine. The injured miner was brought to the surface and died as a result of his injuries.

A 103j order was issued to the mine operator. District 4 personnel responded upon notification and an accident investigation is underway.

UPDATE: State officials have identified the victim as Asa Fitzpatrick, 63, of Kermit, W.Va.

This is the 5th coal-mining fatality in West Virginia is as many weeks, and while it’s the first since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “safety stand down” following last month’s string of deaths, it’s interesting to note that this death occurred at a mine that state mine safety director Eugene White visited for one of the governor’s “safety talks”. As The Associated Press reported at the time:

White visited Newtown Energy’s Rachel Peerless Mine in Boone County, meeting with the day shift, which was brought out early, and the evening shift, before its miners went underground Wednesday.

“Everybody was concerned,” White said, adding that while the miners had heard about some fatalities, few realized that four men had been lost in just 14 days.

Critics call such timeouts for safety publicity stunts, but White said they’re necessary because “over time, people forget.”

Counting last year’s seven mining deaths, this makes at least 21,169 coal miners killed on the job in West Virginia since they started keeping track in the 1880s. Of course, those figures don’t include the thousands of miners who died from black lung disease.

Update on Blacksville coal-mine fire

There were some scary moments there yesterday, with some conflicting information about whether all of the workers at CONSOL Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine had made it out in an evacuation ordered because of an underground fire. Luckily, the news turned out to be good, and all 121 employees who were underground were eventually accounted for. Here’s the latest just in from CONSOL:

On Tuesday at 2:00 PM, smoke was detected exiting the Orndoff shaft at CONSOL Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 mine near Wayne in Greene County, PA. All 121 day shift underground employees were safely evacuated through the Kuhntown portal and none sustained injuries.

Overnight Tuesday, CONSOL Energy, working closely with federal and state authorities, was able to identify the general location of a fire and began implementing an aggressive plan to contain and extinguish it.

The plan entails two primary strategies: to mobilize all resources necessary to maximize the amount of water that can be injected into the mine near the site where we believe the fire is located and to conduct continuous air sampling in order to monitor CO and methane levels inside the mine.

At midnight, an existing borehole at the Orndoff shaft was opened and by 8:00 AM this morning, 125,000 gallons of water had been pumped into the mine. CONSOL Energy is in the process of deploying three vertical drilling rigs to drill additional boreholes near the Orndoff shaft, which will enable us to increase the volume of water that we can pump into the mine. One of the drilling rigs is already on-site and began drilling operations at 9:30 this morning; we anticipate a second will arrive on-site by 5:00PM today and the third is in the process of being shipped from CONSOL Energy’s Bailey mine. Three sampling lines have been lowered into the Orndoff shaft to monitor for CO and methane. A baseline set of data is being developed so we can monitor deviations as activities commence.

CONSOL Energy’s team remains on-site around the clock to monitor the situation and has also secured all of the necessary machinery to support these efforts.

Last evening, CONSOL Energy cancelled the Blacksville No. 2 midnight and Wednesday day shifts and today confirms that all shifts will be cancelled so that the remediation plan can continue. All CONSOL Energy hourly employees at the Blacksville #2 Mine and Prep Plant can tune into AM 1170 and FM WRLF 94.3 for future work announcements.

It is unknown at this time when mine operations will resume. No personnel will re-enter the mine until it is determined that it is safe to do so.

CONSOL Energy will provide updated information as soon as it becomes available.

AP: Former UBB superintendent now in prison

Gary May, former UBB mine superintendent walks away from the U.S. District Court in Beckley Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 with his attorney, Tim Carrico, after his sentence hearing. May was sentenced to 21 months in prison and three years of supervised release. Judge Irene Berger also ordered that May pay a $20,000 fine. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

Here’s the latest from The Associated Press:

A former superintendent at the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men died in 2010 is now behind bars at a minimum-security federal prison in Morgantown, U.S. Bureau of Prison records showed Tuesday.

Gary May was sentenced in January to 21 months in prison on a conspiracy charge for his actions at the former Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

May, 44, of Bloomingrose pleaded guilty last year to charges that he defrauded the federal government with actions that included disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records.

May has cooperated with prosecutors in their continuing criminal investigation of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 year and testified at the sentencing of former Massey security chief Hughie Stover.

Stover was sent to prison for three years for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents. It was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case, and he’s serving his time at a minimum-security prison near Ashland, Ky.

May had asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to sentence him to home confinement or a federal facility closer to his home. Morgantown is about a three-hour drive.

Still awaiting sentencing is David Hughart, head of another Massey subsidiary. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, testifying last month about a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections between 2000 and 2010.

Hughart, former president of White Buck Coal Co., said the policy was set by the former chief executive. At the time, that was Don Blankenship. His attorney denies Blankenship did anything wrong.

Hughart faces up to six years in prison when sentenced June 25.

More inaction on mine safety in West Virginia

On Friday, not long after our West Virginia House of Delegates voted 99-0 in favor of a selenium water pollution bill favored by the coal industry (with the House Judiciary Chairman citing as the main reason to support it simply that it was “an important one for the coal industry), I finished up another in a series of articles in which I’ve been checking up on how Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration is doing  in implementing last year’s “comprehensive” mine safety bill.

Here’s what that story, published in Sunday’s paper said:

The Tomblin administration is not moving forward with language in West Virginia’s new mine safety bill that could require tougher safety training at coal-mining operations that routinely violate state regulations.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not yet used its authority to take action when coal operators repeatedly allow hazardous working conditions.

That’s right, here was yet another tool that West Virginia’s mine safety regulators really weren’t using — along with better methane monitoring systems, tougher coal-dust control standards, and stiffer fines for safety violations.

Keep in mind that when industry officials and political leaders talk about mine safety, one thing they like to emphasize is improving training and working with companies and with coal miners to ensure that workers know how to work safely in the dangerous environment of an underground coal mine. And with this story, we were looking specifically at a tool aimed at giving state regulators the ability to improve industry training practices at troubled mines. As the story explained:

The new “pattern of conduct” provision was added to West Virginia law as part of a mine safety bill passed in March 2012 and touted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as “comprehensive” legislation.

Under the change, the state office is now required to take action if the director determines that his inspectors have found “a pattern of conduct creating a hazardous condition at a mine.”

The law says that White’s agency must, after such a finding, notify the state Board of Miners’ Training, Education and Certification of that finding. Then, the board is required to “cause additional training to occur at the mine” to address the safety problems and hazards found at the operation.

During an interview last week, White said his agency has created a new form for inspectors to use when they want to report a “pattern of conduct” to supervising inspectors or agency headquarters in Charleston. So far, though, no such reports have been submitted.

“Has anyone filled one of those out yet? No,” White said.

And Eugene White explained why he’s really not that keen on using this new tool anyway:

White said he wants a state inspector to turn to the “pattern of conduct” provision only when “he feels like he has done all he can.”

White said that, for now, he would prefer not to report mine operators to the training board, and wants his agency and its inspectors to try to address any problems they find at mining operations.

“My whole thing is, before going to the training board, trying to get a mine back on track,” White said. “Personally, I think we fail as an agency if we run to the training board as if there’s nothing we can do.”

Gov. Tomblin likes to pretend that West Virginia is doing everything it can to make our coal mines as safe as possible — yet his administration seems to accept not aggressively pursuing every avenue given to regulators by the Legislature. And incredibly, the Legislature seems to think that’s just fine.

So far, four West Virginia coal miners have died on the job so far in 2013. That’s four times as many as had been killed as of this date in 2012.

Well, in case you missed it, yesterday’s big news is in today’s Gazette:

A former Massey Energy official who is cooperating with prosecutors on Thursday implicated the company’s former chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal inspectors.

Former Massey official David C. Hughart pleaded guilty to two federal criminal charges that he plotted with other company officials to routinely violate safety standards and then cover up the resulting workplace hazards.

But a fairly routine plea hearing here took a surprising twist when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Hughart to name his co-conspirators and Hughart responded, “the chief executive officer.”

What does Blankenship have to say about this?

William Taylor, a lawyer for Blankenship, said his client has done nothing wrong and downplayed the significance of what Hughart said.

“We were quite surprised at the reports of Mr. Hughart’s statements at the time of his guilty plea,” Taylor said. “Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, he did everything he could to make Massey’s mines safe.

“We’re not concerned particularly about the story concerning Mr. Hughart,” Taylor said. “It’s not surprising that people say untrue things when they are trying to reduce a possible prison sentence.”

The Associated Press, which had reporter John Raby in the courtroom, led its story on the hearing this way:

A longtime subordinate of ex-Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship publicly implicated his boss for the first time Thursday in what appears to be a widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise inspections.

The Wall Street Journal said in  its story:

The former head of a Massey Energy Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and alleged he was ordered by the Massey chief executive at the time to illegally warn miners of imminent safety inspections.

And Howard Berkes over at NPR wrote on the Two-Way Blog:

A relatively routine plea hearing in Beckley, W.Va, Thursday, took an unexpected and dramatic turn when a former Massey Energy executive implicated former CEO Don Blankenship in a criminal conspiracy.

It’s the first time Blankenship has been publicly named as an alleged conspirator in the ongoing federal criminal investigation of the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine.

The accusation is also the first public indication that Blankenship specifically is in the sights of federal prosecutors.

It’s worth remembering that Judge Berger’s questioning of former Massey officials who have flipped and become government witnesses has produced interesting disclosures before, such as when former Upper Big Branch Mine Superintendent Gary May alleged that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors were among those in on the conspiracy to provide advance notice of government safety inspections.

Continue reading…

W.Va. mine safety: ‘Everything we possibly can’?

Last Thursday, I sat through another maddening discussion among members of the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. They were talking again about new rules to implement the tougher methane monitoring requirements of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 2012 mine safety legislation. As we explained in a Gazette print story:

Members have been unable to reach agreement on a key definition for the rules, but appear to have settled on language that would give the coal industry at least three years to comply with the new monitoring requirements.

The rules at issue are needed to implement the legislation’s mandate to tighten the state’s requirement for mining equipment to be automatically shut off when the explosive gas methane is detected underground.

During a meeting Thursday afternoon in Charleston, board members discussed the rules again — without mentioning that they were legally mandated to finalize the rules more than four months ago.

So to board members, the issue of whether or not they complied with a legislative mandate to write these methane monitoring rules wasn’t even worth talking about.  It’s not something you heard other state leaders saying much about last week, either, despite a high-profile media event about mine safety staged by Gov. Tomblin in response to four coal-mining deaths in two weeks. It’s not as if the Tomblin administration isn’t also behind schedule to begin enforcing new coal dust control standards and imposing increased fines on mine operators for safety violations.

During a legislative hearing last week, House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a United Mine Workers leader, was content to accept that rules to implement tougher monitoring standards remain unfinished, saying:

I know that’s a work in progress and I’m OK with that.

This is what the late U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II called a “climate of lawlessness.” What’s the message to mine operators if state regulators themselves can’t or won’t comply with legislative mandates? Why should mining operators — or individual miners, for that matter — follow the law if the agencies charged with enforcing the law so blatantly ignore legal mandates themselves?

Along with those questions, there’s this idea being promoted out there by Gov. Tomblin (and being accepted by the media) that there’s nothing to do at this point, because investigations of the recent mining deaths haven’t been completed. State mine safety chief Eugene White was relaying this message in an Associated Press story that came out over the weekend:

White, however, said it’s too soon to say if he’d recommend tougher state penalties for violations because the recent incidents remain under investigation.

“Until I know for sure what the main contributing factors were that caused these accidents, I would be hesitant to make any recommendations,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out why what happened happened.”

It’s true that federal and state investigations of the recent four deaths — or even the six deaths since November that Gov. Tomblin mentioned — haven’t been completed. But it simply doesn’t follow that this means, in the governor’s words, we’ve done everything that we possibly can to make sure that our mines are as safe as possible.

What hasn’t the state done that it could do to make West Virginia’s coal mines safer?

Proximity detection devices:  As we saw from Kris Maher’s strong Wall Street Journal story,  the federal government has stalled in finalizing a rule to require life-saving equipment that could have prevented perhaps four of the recent West Virginia mining deaths. West Virginia lawmakers could get out ahead of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration on the issue. Gov. Tomblin could ask them to do so.

Training for miners:  Just a few hours before the latest in a series of West Virginia mining deaths, lawmakers  heard clearly that West Virginia’s program for training coal miners is decades out of date.  As Taylor Kuykendall reported in the State Journal:

A lot has changed since the 1970s, but it’s apparently been that long since a major overhaul of West Virginia’s state mining training procedures … A survey commissioned by the board found a desire for training on new laws and regulations, hazard recognition and identifying patterns of accidents.

“More hands on training was also suggested, using simulated mines or computer-based virtual reality,” the report states.

Many respondents also wanted to see more use of Internet-based safety program enhancements.

“Most said that their training on equipment is up-to-date, but suggested that equipment that is no longer used such as flame safety lamps and FSRs should be dropped from training curricula,” the report states.

Lawmakers and Gov. Tomblin could support the board’s proposal to earmark 1 percent of state coal severance taxes to rebuild the training program.

Inspectors:  During that same House hearing last week, lawmakers heard about the “crisis” facing the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, regarding current staffing problems and impending retirements of even more of its experienced workforce. But when I asked Gov. Tomblin about this, the governor turned to Eugene White and seemed surprised by the question:

I will discuss that with Mr. White and see what we can do.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin said he had exempted the mine safety office from budget cuts hitting other state agencies. But where is his plan to provide increased funding so the agency can keep the inspectors it has and hire more of them?

It’s easy to say that there’s nothing to be done right now, that we need to wait for the results of investigations of the recent mining deaths before taking any action. Congress and the Legislature — and Govs. Manchin and Tomblin — both used that excuse when they declined to take any mine safety actions after Upper Big Branch until the investigation was done.  But it’s simply not true to say West Virginia is doing “everything we possibly can” to keep our state’s coal miners safe.

Friday roundup, Feb. 22, 2013

An employee of Hellas Gold, looks at a burnt mining facility  near the village of Skouries, located on the northern peninsula of Halkidiki Greece, on Sunday, Feb. 17 2013.  About 40 masked attackers raided the facilities of a prospective gold mine in northern Greece overnight Sunday, setting machinery and offices alight, authorities said. There has long been opposition to the prospect of a gold mine and processing plant being built at Skouries in the Halkidiki peninsula, with some residents objecting to what they say will be the destruction of the environment and of pristine forest in the area, leading to the loss of tourism and other local activities such as farming, the rearing of livestock and fishing. (AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis)

Numerous readers have pointed out this study, presented at a recent academic conference, that backs up a lot of what Coal Tattoo has been covering over the last year or more, and is covered in more detail in Science magazine:

During the presidential campaign last fall, a single message was repeated endlessly in Appalachian coal country: President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency, critics said, had declared a “war on coal” that was shuttering U.S. coal-fired power plants and putting coal miners out of work. Not so, according to a detailed analysis of coal plant finances and economics presented here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes ScienceNOW). Instead, coal is losing its battle with other power sources mostly on its merits.

Although the United States has long generated the bulk of its electricity from coal, over the past 6 years that share has fallen from 50% to 38%. Plans for more than 150 new coal-fired power plants have been canceled since the mid-2000s, existing plants have been closed, and in 2012, just one new coal-fired power plant went online in the United States. To investigate the reasons for this decline, David Schlissel, an energy economist and founder of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Belmont, Massachusetts, dove deeply into the broader economics of the industry and the detailed finances of individual power plants.

Schlissel, who serves as a paid expert witness at state public utility board hearings for both utilities and advocacy groups that oppose coal plants, found several reasons for coal’s decline. Over the past decade, construction costs have risen sharply, he said. For example, when the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois, which opened last year, was first proposed, its then-owner, Peabody Energy, said it would cost $1.8 billion to build. Instead it cost more than $4.9 billion, Schlissel said.

Also this week, there’s a really good look at the future of coal and of places like McDowell County, W.Va., in The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper, written by Christopher Nyden (son of Gazette veteran Dr. Paul Nyden). Chris has a lot of important stuff to say, like this:

Mining has lifted many West Virginian families out of poverty, giving them good pay for a very tough job. It has allowed miners to risk their lives so their children may go to college or live a life their parents were unable to. The stories and successes of mining are seen all around West Virginia each day, and it has had an immeasurable impact on the economic growth of West Virginia.

However, the nature of extractive resources such as coal is that they will eventually run out. There is a finite amount of coal in the ground, and whether using conservative or liberal estimates for the life of the state’s coal reserves, West Virginia has serious questions to answer in the near future.

This is the ugly side of coal. It is easy for one to laud its successes, speaking on the tremendous income it has brought to the state. It is much harder to look down the road and see what overdependence on a natural resource will do. The time will come when West Virginia has no choice but to move beyond coal after its long, storied history in the state.

The piece falls a bit too hard for the coal industry’s standard line about renewable energy, not giving alternatives and the move in that direction — now and in the future — nearly enough credit. But he also makes these important points:

Once it is exhausted, people are left with tough decisions. Many have left. Some have turned to whatever makes their lives just a little better, holding on to what they own and love; others have turned to drugs. But many people have remained hopeful in McDowell County, despite having the odds stacked against them.

The debate is now about more than who is for or against coal. The people who frame the debate in this manner do a great disservice to communities who have relied on mining to bring them to their greatest heights.

These people stand in the way of economic progress in the state, and their shortsightedness has left McDowell County in its current position.

All of West Virginia must learn the lessons of McDowell County. This discussion will not be easy, but we can make the easy decision to be proactive now, or we can be reactive later. It is not too late yet. I, like the good people of McDowell County, remain hopeful for our future.

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Obama administration MSHA chief Joe Main had some pretty tough words the other day, following the latest in a series of coal-mining deaths in West Virginia and elsewhere:

The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

But like West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Joe Main’s actions don’t quite match his words … As Kris Maher pointed out this week in The Wall Street Journal:

A coal-mine safety rule, proposed two years ago but not yet adopted, might have prevented recent deaths of miners, including one last week, according to safety experts and the industry’s National Mining Association.

The rule, unveiled by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in August 2011, would require the installation of sensors on critical underground equipment known as the “continuous miner,” massive low-slung machines with spinning drums that grind into coal seams.

The sensors shut down the machine when workers are detected nearby, keeping them from being injured or run over.

Some companies already have installed the sensors and the industry favors adopting the rule, but balked at an expedited time frame in 2011. A separate rule is expected to be proposed this summer requiring sensors on other mobile machinery, such as shuttle cars or scoops used to transport coal.

We’ve written many times about these proximity detection devices rules (see here, here, here and here, for example). As Kris explained in his story:

Since 2010, six miners have died after being crushed or struck by continuous mining machines. A 28-year-old Illinois coal miner was killed Feb. 13 when he was pinned between a continuous miner and a solid wall of coal, while a 44-year-old West Virginia miner was killed Tuesday after being hit by a scoop.

So far, a total of six coal miners have been killed in 2013, all in a one-month period, which is considered unusually high, especially since safety precautions have been stepped up in the wake of the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 in April 2010.

Not for nothing, but of the five such coal-mining deaths that have occurred since MSHA proposed a proximity detection device rule for continuous mining machines, four of them occurred in West Virginia (see here, here, here, here and here). While state officials say they have done everything they can to make West Virginia’s mine safe, they didn’t bother to include their own proximity device requirement in last year’s “comprehensive” mine safety legislation. When MSHA came to West Virginia for a public hearing on its proximity rule proposal, the West Virginia Coal Association couldn’t be bothered to talk about it — and instead tried to take over the hearing to carry on one of former Massey Energy Don Blankenship’s personal crusades against federal regulators.

The latest West Virginia miner to die in one of these preventable crushing accidents was John Houston Myles, 44, of Hilltop. According to the obituary in the Beckley paper, Myles was a Desert Storm veteran, and he and his wife were married underground at the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley. The obit notice lists 2 sons, four daughters and one grandchild.

By way of background, Kris notes in his story:

Industry and safety officials have long known of risks posed by the machines, which typically are operated via remote control by a worker standing nearby and produce about half of underground coal mined in the U.S. Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners were killed and 220 injured as a result of being crushed, pinned or struck by continuous miners, according to the U.S.

 

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Photo courtesy of Gov. Tomblin’s Office. Gov. Tomblin calls for statewide mine safety stand down during press conference at the State Capitol.

Last year, West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining death, as our state did  in 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2004. Over the last decade, at least 127 West Virginia coal miners have died on the job (not counting the far greater death toll from black lung disease) — far more than the closest other state, Kentucky, which has recorded 86 mining deaths between 2002 and 2013.

Often on this blog, I’ve quoted the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who observed the ritual that political leaders, the industry, labor and we in the media seem to go through following coal-mining disasters — a ritual in which we all play our little roles, professing that we’ll do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, hurrying through the process so we can get back to whatever else we have going on … and so the industry can get back to mining coal:

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.

West Virginia political leaders appear to perfecting a new part of this ritual, the “safety stand down” of the sort that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced yesterday afternoon.  Some in the media are providing a little recent context to this, writing:

Former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered a similar temporary stop in production after an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men. He also ordered one in 2006, after the deaths of 16 miners in the back-to-back explosions of International Coal Group’s Sago Mine and Massey’s Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine.

But this whole thing is probably worth just a little bit more discussion.

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Are coal-mining deaths part of our ‘way of life’?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and mine safety chief Eugene White answer questions from reporters during a press conference this morning at the Capitol.

We’ve got today’s big coal industry news on the Gazette’s website:

Citing a string of recent mining deaths, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today ordered all West Virginia coal operators to briefly halt production to review safety laws and best practices.

“This is not a shutdown of mining operations,” Tomblin emphasized during an early afternoon press conference at the Capitol. “We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions.”

The governor announced the “safety stand down” following the Tuesday night death of a Raleigh County miner who was run over by an underground mining “scoop” vehicle.

It was the fourth coal-mining death in the last two weeks in West Virginia.

You can read the governor’s prepared statement here and I’ve posted a copy of his executive order here. You can watch the entire press conference online here via WBOY-TV.

There was a lot of hang-wringing at today’s press conference, as administration officials, state regulators and lobbyists for both the coal industry and coal miners contorted themselves to avoid saying anything too negative in the wake of four coal-mining deaths in just 14 days.

For example, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told me that the frustrating thing to him is that no one seems to know why the recent deaths occurred:

I understand there just aren’t any explanations for these, as they do the preliminary investigations … We strive every day to not have any accidents and its disheartening any time you have one, especially a fatality.

It reminded me a bit of what House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion and a United Mine Workers of America representative, said way back in 2006, when then-Gov. Manchin issued a similar “safety stand down” order following a string of deaths that started at Sago and ended with two separate fatalities a month later on Feb. 1:

We’ve got to get a grip on what’s going on in the coal mines here. Something is going wrong and we have to find out why. Miners should not be dying. I know we can make these mines safe so our miners can come home to their families every night.

Today, Delegate Caputo praised Gov. Tomblin’s actions thus far, but also had this to say:

We’ve lost too many miners in this state. This has got to stop.

Listening to the governor’s statement, and mine safety chief Eugene White’s explanation of his agency’s plans to take part in safety talks at the state’s mines, I couldn’t help but think I’d been here too many times before. And I was reminded of Gov. Tomblin’s statement back in December, when two fatal accidents occurred on the same day in West Virginia (and two other workers narrowly escaped serious injury or deatha):

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.

So when the governor took questions, I read that statement back to him and asked him if he thought the deaths of coal miners are just part of our way of life here in West Virginia. This is what he said:

Well, I think we all recognize that working especially underground, working in close quarters, you’ve got to depend on each other. You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times. It’s one of those things that we’ve watched over the years and we’ve done everything that we possibly can to make sure that our mines are as safe as possible. That’s the reason that the inspectors are out on a regular basis making sure the mines are in compliance with all of the safety laws.

The problem, of course, is that our state hasn’t done all that we possibly can to make sure our mines are as safe as possible, as our recent Gazette stories showed pretty clearly (see here, here, here and here).

It’s also worth noting that two of the coal-mining deaths in West Virginia this year (see here and here) involved miners being hit by or run over by mobile underground equipment — the sorts of deaths that could be prevented if Gov. Tomblin and the Legislature had included a requirement for proximity detection devices in last year’s mine safety legislation.

Also, remember that the “safety standown” ordered by Gov. Tomblin involves the state’s inspectors going out to help mine operators give safety talks to miners before each shift tonight and tomorrow, but doesn’t call for any immediate inspections or beefed up enforcement, or anything of the kind.

It’s interesting to read what the governor said in the prepared news release issued by this office this afternoon:

West Virginia’s coal mining industry can thrive only if mining operations are conducted as safely as possible and in accordance with the mandatory health and safety laws and regulations aimed at preventing accidents. I’m asking all coal companies and their employees to take this safety check seriously- we need to do everything we can to ensure all of our coal miners are safe.

But then, speaking to reporters during his press conference, the governor put it just a little bit differently:

This is not a shutdown of mining operations. We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions.

You have to wonder why it’s so hard sometimes for West Virginia political leaders to say something like this, which was the statement issued a few minutes ago by MSHA chief Joe Main about the six deaths in the nation’s mines in the last four weeks:

The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

Then again, if you read Joe Main’s statement closely, he’s not calling for additional inspection and enforcement measures yet, either …

This statement was just issued by Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Yesterday, the coal industry marked its sixth mining fatality in less than one month. Four of those deaths occurred in West Virginia. Starting Thursday morning, MSHA inspectors, supervisors and managers will travel to coal operations throughout the state to alert miners, mine operators and miners’ representatives about this alarming trend. Our enforcement personnel will be armed with detailed handouts and will talk directly to mine operators and miners, reminding them about the critical need for safe work practices.

Mine operators need to make sure that they are conducting proper mine safety examinations to find and fix hazards, and they need to make sure that miners are properly trained to do the jobs they are assigned, particularly activities not part of their normal routine.

I applaud today’s directive by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who called for a stand down for safety at all coal mines. Also, I have spoken with West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training Director Eugene White, and MSHA and the state have agreed to work together on this effort.

By tomorrow morning, MSHA’s goal is to have a written alert describing these six tragedies — along with best practices for preventing them — on our website and on the desk of every coal mine operator in the country. The industry is coming off two of the safest years in mining in this country. The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.

UPDATE:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin plans to issue an executive order this afternoon calling for a “safety stand down” at the state’s coal mines. See this story on the Gazette’s website for more information

Here’s the news in this morning from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training:

Shuttle Car Operator John Myles, 44, of Hilltop, W.Va., died Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, from injuries he received while working at Pocahontas Coal Mine’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County.

 Mr. Myles had a total of four year’s experience as a miner, and had worked at this mine for one year and two months prior to last night’s accident. Mr. Myles was hit by a scoop as he shoveled coal ribs. The accident happened at approximately 8 p.m.

This is the second death at the Affinity Mine in the last two weeks.  Edward L. Finney, 43, of Bluefield, Va., was killed in a hoisting accident on Feb. 7 (see here and here). And it’s also the 4th coal-mining death in West Virginia in the last two weeks.

Pocahontas Coal is controlled by Metinvest B.V., Ukraine-based holding company with mining and steel assets.

 

3 W.Va. coal miners killed in the last week

Well, Alpha Natural Resources President Kevin Crutchfield was certainly right about one thing he said the other day:

While I am pleased with the efforts all of our employees are making on accident reduction, the loss of three of our fellow employees in 2012 is a somber reminder that there remains much work to be done, and we must remain vigilant at all times.

As we reported last evening:

A Marion County man has died from injuries received in a Consol Energy mining accident, making him the third West Virginia coal miner killed on the job in the last week.

Glen L. Clutter Jr., 51, of Baxter, died Thursday, Consol said in a statement. Clutter began his mining career in 1981 at Consol’s Blacksville No. 1 Mine and had worked at the company’s Loveridge Mine near Fairview for the last decade, a Consol spokeswoman said.

Clutter received severe head trauma on Tuesday evening when a metal bar he was using to help put a loaded supply car back on the mine’s underground track system kicked out and hit him in the head, according to the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

CONSOL said in its statement:

Safety remains at the core of everything we do at Consol Energy.  It is our priority to prevent events like this one from ever happening and we continue to strive for a workplace experience of zero accidents.

And as we mentioned in our story:

The last week’s string of deaths comes after a series of missteps by the Tomblin administration as state regulators work to implement the governor’s mine safety legislation passed during the 2012 session.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did not mention the regulatory setbacks — or the string of accidents — in his State of the State address Wednesday night, but did promise that the state mine safety office would be exempt from budget cuts hitting other agencies.

Gov. Tomblin, of course, has said:

While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur.

Coal miner killed in Illinois

This sad news this morning comes from the coalfields of Illinois, where according to MSHA:

A miner was killed Wednesday evening after being pinned between the tail of the continuous mining machine and the coal rib.  The victim was the continuous mining machine operator and had the remote control unit with him. The right side of the cut had been completed and the victim was moving the machine over to start the left side of the cut. The mine has been evacuated.

The death occurred at Nighthawk Coal Company’s Prairie Eagle South Mine near Cutler, Illinois, and is currently listed as the 4th U.S. coal-mining death of 2013. The mine is controlled by Arch Coal Inc.; Franklin D. Robertson; and James O. Bunn, according to MSHA records.

This morning, Alpha Natural Resources is announcing its 4th quarter and full-year financial results for 2012 (a net loss of $2.4 billion for the year), and offering this outlook for 2013:

After a period of cyclical weakness in the global metallurgical coal market in the second half of 2012 during which approximately 30 million tons of uneconomic production was removed from the seaborne market, developments are beginning to point to gradual improvement … Throughout 2012, the market for domestic steam coal remained challenging due in part to the fourth warmest winter ever recorded, low natural gas prices and the long-term secular trend of coal-fired plant retirements all of which contributed to reduced coal usage and led to record-high inventory levels that peaked at an estimated 213 million tons in the spring of the year.  As natural gas prices have increased from their lows below $2 per MCF to a level in the low $3s and with forward pricing hovering around the $4 mark, coal has recovered some of its market share which bottomed at 32 percent of U.S. electricity generation and reached approximately 38 percent by year-end.  As a result of the increased usage of coal in the second half of the year, along with production cuts estimated at around 100 million tons during 2012, utility inventories have started to retreat but remain elevated at approximately 197 million tons as of the end of the year. 

In light of the continuing weakness in the U.S. steam coal market, Alpha adjusted its shipment levels and implemented a restructuring plan to right-size its operating footprint.  With respect to the PRB, Alpha has reduced its planned shipments in the near-term until elevated inventories eventually correct, allowing acceptable profit levels.  In the East, Alpha’s Pittsburgh seam longwalls, with high heat content and relatively lower costs, are expected to produce an estimated 9 million to 10 million tons in 2013.  In Central Appalachia, Alpha has idled or closed a number of higher production cost steam coal operations in order to control costs and match supply with structurally diminished demand that has decreased markedly over the course of the last year.  At the same time, Alpha more than doubled its Eastern thermal coal exports in 2012 to nearly six million tons, and the Company plans to continue to build its export thermal franchise in 2013, and beyond.

In their press release, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield made note of safety improvements, but also of the fact that three Alpha miners in West Virginia died on the job last year (see here, here and here):

Once again Alpha improved its safety performance on several fronts.  Compared with the prior quarter, both our incident rate and our days-lost declined by 20 percent in the fourth quarter.  Looking at the full year 2012, Alpha achieved a 20 percent improvement in its incident rate and a 32 percent reduction in serious and substantial MSHA citations.  No matter what market headwinds or other challenges we face, we can never lose our focus on ‘Running Right.’  The year 2012 was no exception.  I would like to congratulate our entire workforce on their successful efforts.  While I am pleased with the efforts all of our employees are making on accident reduction, the loss of three of our fellow employees in 2012 is a somber reminder that there remains much work to be done, and we must remain vigilant at all times.