Coal Tattoo

Another W.Va. coal miner dies on the job

More bad news this week in West Virginia, this time with a fatal accident at Metinvest’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County. According to MSHA:

A miner was killed at approximately 09:20 p.m., Thursday night. While pushing a scoop bucket insert full of trash onto a hoist, the hoist moved unexpectedly. Reportedly, the hoist picked up the scoop and trapped the victim under the scoop, causing crushing injuries.

UPDATED: State officials have identified the victim as Edward L. Finney, 43, of Bluefield, Va.

This is the second coal-mining death in West Virginia in as many days. And not for nothing, but here’s something that MSHA reported about the Affinity Mine last year:

… from Feb. 13, when the dispatcher for Metinvest B V’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., notified the belt foreman over the mine telephone that federal and state inspectors were headed underground. The mine operator was issued a citation and, to abate it, MSHA required that all certified foremen and dispatchers be trained in the requirements of the Mine Act regarding advance notification, and that a notice be conspicuously posted in the mine office to ensure future compliance with the Mine Act. 

Coal lobby wins another round on mine safety

We were reminded again just yesterday evening how thin the margin of error is in the coal-mining business, how easy it is for things to go wrong, and lives to needlessly be lost.

Yet we’ve seen example after example (see here, here and here) over the last few weeks of how the West Virginia Coal Association has been able to stall efforts to enforce new coal-mine safety requirements — with the help of the Tomblin administration. So it’s really not surprising that this is what I found once I had a chance to take a look at the details of the new Tomblin administration proposal for implementing increased fines for mine safety violations:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration has softened a proposed rule aimed at increasing monetary fines for violations of state mine safety and health standards.

The proposal eliminates across-the-board civil penalty hikes the West Virginia Coal Association complained about, confining the increases only to fines of $500 or more.

When I talked to Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton last evening, he was pleased with the changes — and it’s no wonder, given that they appear aimed at addressing the coal lobby’s earlier complaints about last year’s proposal. Hamilton says that lawmakers never intended to force an across-the-board increase in mine safety fines — but since legislative leaders worked out details of the governor’s bill during closed-door negotiations, there’s really no way for the public to know if this is true or not …

Yesterday evening’s bad news came from right here in Kanawha County:

One worker was killed and a second one injured Wednesday afternoon at a coal preparation plant in Kanawha County, federal officials said. The incident occurred at Patriot Coal subsidiary Midland Trail Energy’s Five Mile Prep Plant in the Campbells Creek area of Kanawha County, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

UPDATED: The state mine safety office this morning identified the miner who was killed as Brandon E. Townsend, 34, of Delbarton, W.Va. .

Here’s the initial report (not a formal preliminary report) issued late yesterday afternoon by MSHA:

A miner at the Blue Creek Preparation Plant in Kanawha County was killed today when, according to the mine operator, a hydraulic jack exploded on a belt press.  A second miner was injured. MSHA issued a 103j order at 4:38 p.m. to close the plant, and an investigator is en route.

There was some confusion in the reporting (see here and here) about exactly where this accident occurred. But according to MSHA, the mine identification number for the operation where the death happened was 46-09226, and you can look up details about the operation in the agency’s online data system. This preparation plant is part of the Blue Creek mining complex, and was apparently once called the Blue Creek Preparation Plant. It’s now listed as the Five Mile Prep Plant, apparently named after Five Mile Hollow, which is up Campbells Creek from the community of Tad.

This death in Kanawha County is the first fatal coal-mining accident in West Virginia in 2013 and the second in the U.S., with the first coming last month in Kentucky.

Never again: Is W.Va. doing enough on mine safety?

Yesterday afternoon, the Tomblin administration offered a defense of the pace of its work to implement last year’s “comprehensive mine safety bill. As we report in today’s Gazette:

Amy Shuler Goodwin, communications director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the administration has been working hard for months to put in place the provisions of the governor’s legislative response to the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

“It may not be done quickly, but it’s going to be done right,” Goodwin said Tuesday. “It has always been [the governor’s] goal to make sure that these rules are implemented.”

Not long after I interviewed Amy, word began to spread that there was a coal preparation plant up near Wheeling on fire. As is often the case, initial reports from dispatchers and some of the local media weren’t clear about exactly what was going on. Eventually, as the Wheeling paper reported, it turned out the situation was under control:

Emergency crews said no one was injured in a small fire Tuesday afternoon at Tunnel Ridge Mine’s Ohio River loadout facility north of Wheeling.

The fire began just before 3:30 p.m. at the loadout facility, where unearthed coal feeds into three silos with a collective capacity of 28,000 tons that tower over W.Va. 2 about 2 miles north of Pike Island Locks and Dam.

According to the Clearview Fire Department, the blaze was small and members of Tunnel Ridge’s safety team were able to put out the flames on their own. The fire occurred in a conveyor belt but the exact cause is unclear, firefighters said.

Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, provided this quick and initial report on what happened:

Metiki Coal reported a fire on the surface belt line. The fire was notice at 4:45 pm and burned for approximately 10 minutes before being extinguished by the mine employees. The cause of the fire is unknown at this time.

But you think conveyor belt fires at coal-mining operations are no big deal? Tell that to Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, whose husbands died when such a fire struck at the Massey Energy Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va., back in January 2006. Just yesterday, the Aracoma fire was in the news again, as the state Supreme Court gave the Mrs. Bragg and Mrs. Hatfield a small victory in their long court battle to try to hold federal mine safety officials responsible for their failure to prevent their husbands’ deaths.

So it’s worth remembering that MSHA wasn’t the only agency that failed at Aracoma. In his review of the Aracoma fire, longtime mine safety expert Davitt McAteer founded, among other things:

… State officials have indicated that a severe manpower shortage prevented them from providing adequate oversight. Dennie Ballard, assistant inspector-at-large for WVOMHSTʼs District 3 office in Danville, said that at the time of the fire, two inspectors in the district (WVOMHSTʼs largest) were off work because of illness and injuries. However, even when the office is fully manned, just 12 inspectors are responsible for completing quarterly inspections of 83 underground mines Typical view of a stopping that has been knocked out and 40 preparation plants. Four additional electrical inspectors are required to conduct annual electrical examinations. In order to complete the required oversight, these inspectors would have to make 123 inspections every three months. That is a tremendous workload – the math would suggest an almost impossible task.

Former state mine safety chief Ron Wooten acknowledged that state inspectors missed things, and then-Gov. Joe Manchin admitted thatthe state’s inspections “did not fully and accurately capture the safety conditions present at this particular mine.” Massey Energy had this to say about what happened at Aracoma:

The conditions appear to have occurred despite a rigorous requirement of safety examinations and inspections for underground mines. Such a process normally leads to the diligent discovery and correction of potential mine hazards. At Aracoma, it appears that deficiencies were not fully recognized by mine personnel or by state or federal inspectors.

(Today, by the way, the state mine safety office has 91 inspectors, fewer than it had in 2011 or 2012, and agency director Eugene White has highlighted turnover among his workforce as a continuing challenge.)

Continue reading…

Aracoma ruling: Bad news for MSHA

West Virginia’s state Supreme Court just released a long-awaiting ruling that certainly complicates things for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. As we reported on the Gazette’s website:

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday paved the way for the widows of two miners killed in the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire to pursue their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over lax enforcement of federal mine safety standards at the operation.

In a 5-0 ruling, the justices said that a private party conducting mine inspections is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from that private party’s negligent inspection.

The decision appears to allow Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield to pursue their suit against the labor department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has publicly conceded major inspection and enforcement lapses at the Aracoma operation.

“A private inspector who inspects a work premises for the purpose of furthering the safety of employees who work on said premises owes a duty of care to those employees to conduct inspections with ordinary skill, care, and diligence commensurate with that rendered by members of his or her profession,” said the ruling, written by Justice Robin Davis.

The case stems from the Jan. 19, 2006, fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. A crew of workers trying to evacuate the underground tunnels ran into thick black smoke in their primary escape tunnel, and was forced to try find another way out. Two workers, Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

You can read the ruling yourself here, and here’s a bit more of our story to explain the legalities of this:

Citing MSHA’s failures, the Bragg and Hatfield families sued MSHA under the federal Tort Claims Act, alleging federal officials were partly responsible. A suit against Massey was settled, with the terms being kept confidential.

In February 2011, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver threw out the case, concluding that it wasn’t allowed because under West Virginia law a private person in circumstances similar to MSHA’s would not have been held liable. Under the FTCA, the federal government is liable in the same manner, and to the same extent, as private individuals would be in similar situations.

Then, in July 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it found “no clear controlling West Virginia precedent” on the issue, and asked the state Supreme Court to consider the matter.

Bruce Stanley, attorney for the Bragg and Hatfield families, told me in a statement:

The opinion marks another step in the widows’ continuing efforts to bring to justice all those responsible for the senseless disaster at Aracoma. The conscious decision of coal companies to ignore the most basic of mine safety laws and instead just run coal should not and cannot excuse government regulators from their independent responsibility to enforce those laws, regardless of the prevailing political climate or perceived economic pressures.  Hopefully, the threat of a private suit will serve as an incentive for them to do their jobs instead of turning their heads.

We broke another story this morning on the Gazette’s website about how the Tomblin administration’s efforts at “comprehensive mine safety” reform are stalled. This one (following up on previous stories here and here), reports:

Tomblin administration representatives are still putting the finishing touches on a rule to implement an increase in civil penalties that was part of the governor’s much-touched mine safety legislation passed last year, officials confirmed this morning.

Under the bill, signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last March, the maximum monetary fine for most mine safety violations was to be increased from $3,000 to $5,000.

The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has not been using its authority for the increased fines, pending finalization of the rule, agency director Eugene White said. “That will take place when the rule is promulgated,” White said.

As noted in the story, an initial rulemaking aimed at implementing the increase in fines was withdrawn by the administration in the face of criticism from the West Virginia Coal Association. In emails on file with the Secretary of State’s office, association vice president Chris Hamilton explained his concerns about the initial rule:

… This section of law raises the maximum penalty from $3,000 to $5,000. The change to this section was not intended to raise penalties across the board. All evidence behind this change to state law only references an increase in the “Maximum” penalty. My understanding is that rules are being drafted that would effectively raise all penalties, including the minimum penalty by approximately 60 percent.

If you take a look at the initial rule, especially at Table 1 on the last page, it indicates that, through changes in the civil penalty formula used to get the maximum penalty from $3,000 to $5,000 — as mandated by the Legislature — state agency officials also ended up with very small increases in the other, non-maximum fines. For example, a violation that previously drew a $60 fine would not result in a $100 fine. A violation that previously brought a $504 fine would result in a penalty of $840.

But the most interesting thing here is to read the state agency’s description of the real impact of these changes in maximum fines allowed under state law:

It is expected that the increase in the maximum civil penalty … will result in minimal impact on revenues because the maximum penalty was increased from $3,000 to $5,000 which is not a dramatic increase over the previous maximum penalty … while an increase in the maximum civil penalty does result in corresponding increases in the civil penalties for lesser violations … it is not expected that the increases will have a significant impact on revenue because again they are relatively minor.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reacts to crowd support during the Democratic primary election party Saturday, May 14, 2011 in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Three weeks ago, when he was sworn in again as governor of the great state of West Virginia, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said this about the state’s efforts to ensure there’s never a repeat of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

We made our mines safer by passing a comprehensive mine safety bill to protect the thousands of miners across this state who work each and every day so we may all enjoy a better life.

Of course, a law really doesn’t mean much if it’s not enforced. So what do we know so far about the state’s efforts to enforce this “comprehensive mine safety bill” the governor touted not only his in inaugural address, but also in his re-election campaign?

Well, we reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail two weeks ago about how the state has yet to write rules that are required for enforcement of the bill’s requirement to toughen the requirement for shutting down underground mining equipment when explosive methane is detected. Under the legislation, those rules were due in October.

And yesterday, we broke another story in the Sunday paper, this one reporting:

Nearly three years after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, West Virginia regulators still haven’t begun citing and fining mine operators who violate new standards aimed at preventing coal-dust explosions, according to interviews and records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The new standards were mandated by an executive order issued by then-Gov. Joe Manchin just nine days after the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

Lawmakers later added the standards, mandating more crushed limestone be used to control the buildup of explosive coal dust underground, to state law. Current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted the change as a major part of what he says was a “comprehensive mine safety bill.”

But despite finding hundreds of instances over the last 18 months where mining operations didn’t comply with the new standards, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has not issued even a single citation for violating the dust standards, records and interviews show.

“We haven’t been writing any paper,” said Randy Harris, a consultant who has been helping the state agency develop its coal-dust sampling program.

What wasn’t mentioned in either of those stories is that another rule — one aimed at implementing a small increase in state safety fines for mine operators established by the legislation — also has not yet been finalized. Like the rock-dusting rule, it was submitted last summer, but then abruptly withdrawn, and hasn’t surfaced since. Like the rock-dusting rule, the one for increased fines was pulled after complaints from the West Virginia Coal Association.

Interestingly, the state has managed to get an emergency rule filed to help implement part of the legislation’s requirement for mandatory drug testing for coal miners, and even did so by the legislatively mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2012.

So, just so everybody is clear: On the two issues in the legislation that actually addressed what led to 29 coal miners getting blown up on April 5, 2010 — methane and coal dust — the state still isn’t taking the actions required by this legislation. But, when it comes to the industry-backed provisions relating to drug testing of miners — a matter that had absolutely nothing to do with the worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years (see here and here) — state regulators were able to act by the required deadlines.

Kentucky records first coal death of 2013

The bad news came in earlier this week from Kentucky:

A miner died while welding at a surface mine site in Leslie County on Saturday morning.

Jerry A. Watts, 52, of Slemp in Perry County, was welding on the liner of a bulldozer blade when a jack slipped and the liner hit him on the head, according to a news release from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

The accident, which occurred at the Begley No. 1 mine at Short Creek, was reported at 11:15 a.m. T&T Energy owns the mine.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has its preliminary report online here.

Protecting the rights of coal miners

In recent months, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has been patting itself on the back for what it says are stepped up efforts to stop mine operators from discriminating against coal miners who complain about dangerous safety and health practices in the workplace. We mentioned this previously here, and MSHA issued another news release on the issue just yesterday:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration filed 46 requests for temporary reinstatement during the 2012 calendar year, more than double any previous year, with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission on behalf of miners who submitted complaints of discrimination in the form of a suspension, layoff, discharge or other adverse action. Additionally, the department filed 34 complaints alleging mine safety discrimination during 2012, also more than in any previous year.

The department filed 101 temporary reinstatement requests in calendar years 2009 – 2012, or an average of 34 per year, compared to an average of six per year 1993 – 2008. Additionally, the department filed a total of 105 discrimination complaints with the commission 2009 – 2012, compared to 63 during the prior four-year period.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

MSHA urges miners to exercise their rights, and actively participate in monitoring safety and health conditions.  We take these rights under the Mine Act very seriously and will vigorously investigate all discrimination complaints.

But there have also been recent incidents that show clearly why MSHA needs to do more. Take the story we’ve mentioned before from Kentucky:

To federal prosecutors, Mackie Bailey is a witness who provided information about dangerous practices at an underground coal mine in Harlan County where a man was crushed to death in June 2011. The company and three supervisors pleaded guilty in federal court.

To state authorities, Bailey is a miner who broke the rules. The Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing filed a complaint against him for taking part in the dangerous activities he reported to state and federal regulators.

To Bailey and his attorney, that’s an injustice, not just because supervisors ordered Bailey to do unsafe work, but because his information helped convict the people responsible.

“They’re trying to punish the whistle-blower,” said Bailey’s attorney, Tony Oppegard, who previously worked as a federal mine-safety official and as a prosecutor in the state mine-safety agency.

Or, the more recent story that Dave Jamieson did in The Huffington Post:

Within the last 17 months, Kentucky miner Reuben Shemwell got fired from his welding job, sued by his former employer and effectively blackballed from the local mines — troubles that he claims all started when he spoke up about working conditions he considered unsafe.

With the miner now wrapped in a messy legal battle with his former employer, an affiliate of Armstrong Coal, what happens to Shemwell’s case could impact all U.S. miners who claim they’ve been fired or otherwise punished for blowing the whistle in what remains one of the nation’s most dangerous industries.

“I’ve been representing miners in safety discrimination cases for more than 30 years, and this is the first time I know of anywhere in the country where a company has sued a miner for filing a discrimination complaint,” said Shemwell’s attorney, Tony Oppegard. “We think the reason they filed [the suit] was to intimidate him and to intimidate other miners.”

Continue reading…

Board drops ball – again – on Tomblin methane rule

Over at the State Journal, Taylor Kuykendall just posted a good follow-up piece to a story we broke two weeks ago in the Gazette. As he explains:

A rule regarding methane levels in West Virginia coal mines is held up at a health and safety board that failed to attract enough members to officially meet on Tuesday.

The West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety was short three members of meeting a quorum – Gary Trout, Theodore Hapney and Carl Egnor. Without enough members, those who did attend the meeting could not perform any official action.

All three missing members represent labor through the United Mine Workers of America. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as a mass protest regarding handling of retiree and other benefits of Patriot Coal, which is in the midst of bankruptcy reorganization.

A UMW spokesman confirmed that Trout, Hapney and Egnor were at the protest today in St. Louis — rather than the mine safety board meeting. Readers may recall that when we first uncovered this situation, the best the governor’s office could do was this prepared statement:

These rules are critical to the safety of all miners and their families. I urge the board to quickly reconvene and make this a priority.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tombin, a Democrat, laughs as he delivers his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. This is Tomblin’s second term in office. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

We’ve written before on this blog about how Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s commitment to the safety and health of West Virginia’s coal miners eroded — at least if judged by the words he used to describe his own legislation. Gov. Tomblin went from a pledge to “do all we can” to protect miners to a campaign ad that proclaimed his legislation “tough, but fair,” whatever that means.

On Sunday, we published a Sunday Gazette-Mail article that detailed the sort of thing that happens all too often in government: Promises of politicians turn into weakened legislation, which then turns into even further weakened — or in this case non-existent — implementing rules. As we reported:

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Remembering the Aracoma Mine Fire

Aracoma coal miner Billy Mayhorn is greeted by his wife, Sharon, late Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006, in Melville, W.Va. Mayhorn was one of 19 miners who escaped after a fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Alma No. 1 Mine.   AP Photo/The Logan Banner, Jerry Fekete

My thoughts today are with the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, the two coal miners who died seven years ago in that terrible fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

We’ve recounted this horrible story many times before:

On Jan. 19, 2006, a fire broke out in the belt take-up storage unit for the Aracoma Mine’s longwall conveyor belt. A crew of workers, including Bragg and Hatfield, ran into thick, black smoke in their escape tunnel and had to find another way out. Ten men from the crew escaped. Bragg and Hatfield somehow became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

MSHA investigators had cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including “prolonged operation” of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.

Massey Energy’s Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations that led to their deaths, and paid a record $2.5 million in criminal fines and $1.7 million in civil penalties. Five Massey foreman also pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but none of them went to jail.

But the U.S. Department of Justice and then-U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller agreed to a plea deal with Aracoma Coal in which the government agreed not to prosecute any employees or officers of the corporate parent, Massey Energy. This deal drew much criticism from the widows of Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield.

Prosecutors said they had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Massey or its officers or employees, but lawyers for the families wondered about a key memo that indicated then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew about the poor condition of the conveyor belts at Aracoma and knew mine officials were not accurately reporting those conditions on mine safety reports. (Blankenship later said he thought he had ordered the problems fixed)

Two years ago, I wondered in an Aracoma anniversary post whether U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s criminal investigation of the deaths of 29 more Massey miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine would really end any differently:

What will come of this new criminal investigation? Will prosecutors bring charges against a few mid-level foremen, or will they find and try to punish wrongdoing by anyone further up the corporate ladder?

In the last year, we’ve seen very interesting action in the Upper Big Branch probe. Just last Thursday, former mine superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he pleaded guilty. Late next month, former Massey official David C. Hughart is scheduled to enter a guilty plea. May and Hughart have both admitted to being part of a conspiracy to violate mine safety laws, cover up those violations, and thwart government inspections at Massey operations.  By its very nature, a conspiracy charge means May and Hughart weren’t acting alone, and Goodwin has made it clear his investigation is continuing. But Goodwin isn’t saying who he is targeting — or even really how high up or how broadly within Massey conspiracy charges could be brought, let alone proven.

On Friday, Goodwin went on statewide talk radio again with Hoppy Kercheval, to try to publicly get across his message that mine safety crimes won’t be tolerated on his watch. But Goodwin again dodged the issue of exactly where he believes responsibility for the 29 deaths at Upper Big Branch resides:

What we have seen and what you can glean from the charges that have been filed so far is this kind of thing happened beyond Upper Big Branch. We are going to take this investigation wherever it leads. If that leads further up in the organization or further out in the company structure, we are going to take it there.

We are trying to see to it that another Upper Big Branch never happens again and to hold accountable those who were responsible.

It’s understandable, I suppose, that Goodwin doesn’t want to name names. But it’s a little surprising that he won’t confirm that his office believes the conspiracy at Massey was “corporate-wide company policy” — a term that Gary May’s lawyer used in court documents, citing a secret probation department report.

In the meantime, the Bragg and Hatfield widows, with their lawyer Bruce Stanley, are bravely continuing a separate effort to get to the bottom of and hold responsible others who may have played a role in the Aracoma Mine deaths. We’re waiting now to see what the state Supreme Court does with their case against the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration over the agency’s lax enforcement of mine safety standards prior to the fire.

So stay tuned … and pray for the coal miners.

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006

It was 7 years ago this morning that an explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va. Twelve miners died and another barely got out alive.

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

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

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

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

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

C.A. Phillips to retire from W.Va. mine safety office

It’s just been confirmed that C.A. Phillips, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, plans to retire effective Dec. 31.

C.A. has been director of the agency since August 2011, and had served as acting director for nearly a year before that. He spent nearly a dozen years with the agency, starting in 2001 under the administration of then-Gov. Bob Wise.  A native of McDowell County, C.A. worked in and around the mining industry since 1969. He was a miner and a fireboss for the Olga Coal Co., and went on to work as a safety representative for the United Mine Workers of America.

We’re waiting for word now on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s plans for a replacement.

Gary May, left, of Bloomingrose, W.V., former superintendent of Upper Big Branch Mine, where an explosion killed 29 workers, walks with his defense attorney, Tim Carrico, at the Beckley Federal Courthouse in Beckley W. Va., Thursday March 29, 2012.  (AP Photo/Rick Barbero)

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press reports this interesting development in the Upper Big Branch criminal investigation:

A judge has denied a motion to delay, so the January sentencing of a former superintendent at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine will go on as planned.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger denied prosecutors’ request for a postponement, saying they’d failed to “state good cause.” In light of the time that’s passed since Gary May pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in March, Berger said she was denying the motion.

As previously reported, May is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 17, but U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin sought a four-month delay, saying that May  “continues to provide important cooperation in an ongoing criminal investigation.”  Judge Berger had already twice postponed May’s sentencing after prosecutors said they needed more time to get information from May, who is cooperating with the ongoing investigation as part of a plea deal.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby had argued:

Notable progress has been made in the investigation since this sentencing proceeding was last continued. The further continuance requested here will allow that progress to be extended and will avoid any risk to the investigation from the sentencing proceeding itself.

Judge Berger wasn’t buying it. So now, May will be sentenced on Jan. 17, just one day after Judge Berger holds a Jan. 16 plea hearing for longtime Massey official David Hughart, who is also cooperating with investigators.


Court upholds Stover conviction in UBB case

In a March 15, 2011 photo, Massey Energy Security Chief Hughie Elbert Stover, center, and his wife, left, are swamped by members of the media as they leave the Federal courthouse in Beckley  (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, F. Brian Ferguson).

Word is just in this morning that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of former Massey Energy security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, who was found guilty of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence following the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Stover had appealed his conviction after he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to three years in prison. I’ve posted a copy of the 4th Circuit’s decision here.


Still no proximity detection rules from MSHA

That’s the photo that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration distributed today, as part of its “fatalgram” about the Nov. 30 death of 27-year-old coal-mine electrician Steven O’Dell in another senseless mobile equipment accident in one of our nation’s underground coal mines.

The MSHA fatalgram includes a list of recommendations for ways to avoid these sorts of fatalities, including:

Install proximity detection systems on all mobile face equipment.

MSHA has sent these kinds of warnings out before, including one earlier this year that reported:

Since January 1, 2010, eighty five miners have been injured by mobile equipment including eight miners who were killed in accidents involving mobile face equipment. Of the total number of miners injured, twenty six were permanently partially or totally disabled from accidents involving mobile equipment and fifty one had lost time accidents involving continuous miners, shuttle cars, ramcars, mantrips and scoops.

Agency officials in that warning had also recommended:

Install and maintain electronic proximity detection devices.

And, the agency refers us to its special webpage about these devices, where we learn:

Proximity detection / collision warning is a technology that can be installed on mining machinery to detect the presence of personnel or machinery within a certain distance of a machine. These systems can be programmed to send warning signals and stop machine movement when the programmed areas are breached. We use the term “proximity detection” to refer to underground mining applications which often are designed to inhibit machine movement. We use the term “collision warning” to refer to surface machinery applications that typically provide warning signals only. MSHA has assisted the industry in the development of this technology on a variety of machinery, both underground and surface.

The problem here, of course, is that the Obama administration’s Labor Department, MSHA and the White House (or some combination of officials at all three places) continue to sit on two different rules (see here and here) that would require coal operators to install life-saving proximity devices in underground mines.

CONSOL miner update: Body found in dozer

Here’s the latest word from CONSOL Energy, issued this morning:

Dive and rescue teams completed a series of pipe dives over the weekend that helped to more clearly define the exact position and location of the bulldozer in the Robinson Run Preparation Plant impoundment. With this new information, the teams repositioned the pipe and adjusted the water jets late last evening, in preparation for a dive this morning. This morning an opening was cut in the canopy of the bulldozer and the divers confirmed that our employee is inside the bulldozer cab.

As CONSOL Energy stated previously, this is a complex recovery effort that requires precision and time to execute safely and properly. We do not have an estimate on how long it will take to recover our employee from the bulldozer.

CONSOL Energy continues to provide regular updates to the family.

Investigation into the cause of the accident by MSHA, the West Virginia Department of Mines, CONSOL Energy and other parties, which began on Tuesday morning, is ongoing.

 And here’s what has been released today by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Divers have been in the water and have seen the cab. Efforts will continue today.

And later from MSHA:

Divers have confirmed that the victim is inside the cab of the dozer.  Recovery efforts continue.


Update on recovery at CONSOL impoundment

WVDEP photo

Updates just came in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and CONSOL Energy on their efforts to recovery the body of a United Mine Workers miner missing since last Friday following the collapse of a coal-waste embankment at the company’s Robinson Run mining complex in Harrison County. Among other things, it appears MSHA has approved CONSOL’s proposal to resume preparation plant operations — which includes pumping slurry into the impoundment, even before the body is recovered.

Here’s the MSHA update:

MSHA has modified the k-order to restart the prep plant, but as of Thursday evening, no material had been pumped to the slurry pond.

The diving plan has been approved by MSHA and the state.

A forensics dog was brought onto the property last night and gave a positive reaction, indicating that the recovery team is working in the right location.

The flotilla consists of eight barges. A 43-ton oscillating crane has been loaded onto and secured to the flotilla. It will be positioned with a 4-foot diameter pipe above the bulldozer.

The pipe will be used to pump fresh water down to push the sediment away from the dozer. The first dive will be attempted after the water has replaced the slurry in the pipe to the point where there is visibility.

The first dive will be attempted around 10 a.m. Saturday morning.

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The bad news started early last Friday: A 27-year-old coal miner was crushed to death between two pieces of mining equipment deep inside an Alpha Natural Resources underground mine in Greenbrier County.  Steven O’Dell of Mount Nebo left behind a wife who is expecting their first child later this month.

A few hours later, word came that a CONSOL Energy coal-waste embankment had collapsed in Harrison County. Two company engineers narrowly escaped, but a third man — a United Mine Workers dozer operator — never made it out of the thick, murky slurry impoundment. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration lists that miner, whose identity hasn’t been released publicly, as the 19th U.S. coal miner to die in an on-the-job accident so far in 2012.

West Virginia, as so often is the case, leads the nation with 7 coal-mining fatalities this year.

How did coalfield politicians react to the industry’s deadly day a week ago?

We heard a lot of calls for prayer, which is obviously not such a bad thing, at least not in my book. But what else did political leaders — the folks who love to drone on about how much they care about coal miners — have to say about two coal miners being killed in our state in two separate accidents on the same day?

Well, Sen. Joe Manchin had this:

The loss of one miner’s life is one life too many. As the families and friends struggle to deal with the tragedies that took place today, we are reminded that we must consistently search for ways to improve safety conditions because our miners’ safety is of the utmost importance.

And Sen. Jay Rockefeller said this:

The loss of any miner or West Virginia worker is a terrible tragedy, and we must do everything possible to prevent it.  Today’s accidents are reminders that there is more we can do to be sure our miners return safely to their families at the end of every shift.  A mine safety bill, which I introduced almost three years ago, to fix the problems we know exist still hasn’t passed.  I will continue to fight for this bill and our miners.

But the one that sticks in my mind was the statement from West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

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

Accidents do occur?

It was hard not to wonder if we had suddenly traveled back in time 44 years, to the statements made by government, company and even union officials after 78 miners died in CONSOL Energy’s Farmington Mine Disaster. Back then, there was literally a parade of powerful men saying that death and disaster was just part of life in the coalfields:

— “This is something we have to live with” — John Roberts, public relations executive for Consolidation Coal. (Dr. Paul Nyden, after quoting Roberts in his doctoral dissertation,  noted, “Roberts, of course, didn’t have to live with it. He lived far away from the widows and orphans of the little West Virginia mining town.”)

— “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner” — Gov. Hulett Smith

— “I share the grief. I’ve lost relatives in a mine explosion. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion” — UMWA President Tony Boyle.

Late last Friday night, I read Gov. Tomblin’s statement over the phone to Davitt McAteer, the longtime mine safety advocate who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration. He was furious:

We do not have to live with this kind of deaths in our communities. We have ample history and knowledge about how to prevent them. The governor is wrong on this topic.

Now, maybe Gov. Tomblin didn’t really mean it the way it sounded. But we’ve written before on Coal Tattoo and in the Gazette about how Gov. Tomblin has not only backed off his verbal commitments to protecting coal miners — he went from doing “all that is necessary” to seeking “meaningful” reforms — but also significantly weakened an already tame piece of mine safety and health legislation during this year’s session.

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