Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Montana Coal Mine Fatality

Just posted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration website:

Fatality #46 - November 28, 2006
Powered Haulage - Surface - MT
Spring Creek Coal Company

The MSHA data retrieval system lists the controlling company as RTZ-CRA Group.

No further details apparently available at this point.

This makes 70 mine deaths so far in 2006, counting coal, metal and nonmetal mines.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Today's Top Mine Safety Stories

Kentucky's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has issued its report on a fatality this May. (MSHA's report was out earlier.) The agencies found that the miner was ordered to drive the truck without proper training. Ralph Dunlop has an account in today's Courier-Journal:

The superintendent of an Eastern Kentucky surface coal mine violated federal and state laws when he knew that a company water truck had a defective engine brake but told an employee to drive the vehicle anyway, investigators have concluded.

A few hours later on May 23, the 10-wheel Mack truck raced out of control down a steep mountain road in Breathitt County and overturned at the bottom, crushing to death its driver, Steven Bryant...

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state each issued four citations to Miller Brothers Coal in July, including one from MSHA accusing it of "high negligence" for knowing about the inoperative engine brake yet telling Bryant to drive the truck...

..."The gentleman who put him in (the truck) should be held responsible," his mother, Debbie Bryant, said in an interview. "He shouldn't have done what he done. I don't want to see another parent go through what we went through. He was our only child."

...Bryant had been employed at the Risner Branch mine for barely a month, and with Miller Brothers since January. He normally worked on the blasting crew, where he'd been trained to drive a truck with a different type of transmission. He was driving the water truck only because the regular operator had been assigned elsewhere and another employee begged off, saying he didn't know how.

And AP reporter Tim Huber reports that in West Virginia,the new state mine safety director is beginning an anti-drug effort by setting up a test program for his own staff:

...West Virginia's new mine safety chief is preparing to test his agency's staff for illegal drug use.

Ron Wooten doesn't suspect a drug problem at the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Rather, he considers testing a first step toward combatting what he believes is a widespread drug problem in the coal fields of the nation's second largest coal producer....

United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said there's little evidence to support suspicions that drug use is more prevalent among miners than any other segment of society...

Chris Hamilton with the West Virginia Coal Association said the industry supports drug testing. A number of coal companies have drug testing policies for their employees...

"There is no reason to think that mining is any different or drug use is any less common than what's found in society," he said...

Testing at Miners' Health, Safety and Training would be confined to inspectors and other employees allowed to drive state vehicles, Wooten said. Everyone would be tested next month, followed by random tests determined by a lottery system.

"I can't be out there talking about drugs and getting rid of them if I'm not sure that our house is clean," Wooten said. "We're going to make sure of it."

Kentucky, with a recent new program, is the only state where the government is involved in drug-testing miners. (See post from a few days ago.)

MSHA had an anti-drug and anti-alcohol abuse outreach program in the 1980's. A committee from industry, labor and government including HHS set it up. A strong theme was that testing and punishment are not a sufficient answer; the lives of employees who may be hooked on drugs, or alcohol, and their employer's past investment in them, may be salvaged if they are given a tough choice -- lose your job, or commit to and stay with a meaningful recovery program.

The group at the time considered alcohol abuse at least as much of a safety problem in the mining industry as use of illegal drugs.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Change In the Weather?

Something's happening here.

In checking out articles about all aspects of the coal industry, lately there has been a feeling of change in the wind on a subject usually considered tangential to mine safety and health, but highly important to the future of the mining industry: global warming.

News article after news article in the widest variety of outlets during the past couple of weeks has described nations and states and little communities wrestling with the energy promise and the known problems of coal. The impression I have is that most of these debates are not -- at the root-- driven by politics as usual, but represent a variety of efforts to grapple with what more and more people are seeing as a real, nitty-gritty dilemma that affects them personally.

Then this weekend, a front-page piece in the Washington Post indicated that a shift seems to be coming, perhaps has come already, not only in public and but also corporate opinion:

Energy Firms Come to Terms With Climate Change
By Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin

While the political debate over global warming continues, top executives at many of the nation's largest energy companies have accepted the scientific consensus about climate change and see federal regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions as inevitable.

The Democratic takeover of Congress makes it more likely that the federal government will attempt to regulate emissions. The companies have been hiring new lobbyists who they hope can help fashion a national approach that would avert a patchwork of state plans now in the works. They are also working to change some company practices in anticipation of the regulation.

"We have to deal with greenhouse gases," John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said in a recent speech at the National Press Club. "From Shell's point of view, the debate is over. When 98 percent of scientists agree, who is Shell to say, 'Let's debate the science'?"...

Exxon Mobil Corp., the highest-profile corporate skeptic about global warming, said in September that it was considering ending its funding of a think tank that has sought to cast doubts on climate change. And on Nov. 2, the company announced that it will contribute more than $1.25 million to a European Union study on how to store carbon dioxide in natural gas fields in the Norwegian North Sea, Algeria and Germany...

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the federal government is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant; its decision could force the government to come up with guidelines.

The Los Angeles Times had more on the Supreme Court case:

States Will Tell Supreme Court Feds Must Act on Warming
By David G. Savage

Washington - The polar icecaps are melting, summers growing hotter and hurricanes becoming more powerful, but the Bush administration has insisted it cannot regulate the gases that many believe are responsible.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 12 states, led by California and Massachusetts, will try to persuade the Supreme Court that the nation's environmental regulators have the legal authority and responsibility to control greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming - which many scientists describe as the biggest environmental threat to the planet....

Dealing with carbon dioxide, an inevitable byproduct of burning, is tougher than dealing with coal contaminants such as sulfur, but not impossible. Already there are specific plans underway in the U.K. for one facility intended to pack away waste carbon dioxide in rock strata far underground.

Meanwhile, as energy demands continue to rise and in some areas, mushroom, communities worldwide are debating whether to build more coal-fired power plants, whether to let existing ones continue, whether to allow more coal mines, and on what terms.

All this bears on the future well-being of the coal industry -- and, according to the growing consensus, the future well-being of humanity as a whole -- including miners, their children and their children's children.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Widow's Lawsuit Targets "Services" Firms

Last week, the widow of a coal miner filed a private wrongful-death lawsuit against several companies that provided "management, engineering and safety services" to her husband's employer.

The Harlan Daily Enterprise had a detailed report. Workers' families can rarely or never sue the direct employer for an on-the-job death. That right was traded off long ago in exchange for set workers' compensation payments that do not require a lawsuit to obtain, although it's commonly recognized that in today's terms, these payments are low.

Some selections from the Enterprise story:

The legal team representing the family of deceased miner Russell Cole is hopeful that a jury trial into allegations of miscommunication and a lack of training at Stillhouse Mining LLC will take place in the next year.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed Thursday by Cole's widow, Claudia Cole, of Clutts, is seeking more than $65 million from the Virginia companies that oversee the Cloverlick mine. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in London, accuses the defendants of “careless, reckless, malicious and negligent acts” in regards to Russell Cole's August 2005 death at Stillhouse Mine No. 1.

The lawsuit alleges that Black Mountain Resources LLC, Harlan Resources LLC, Cumberland Land Corp. and Cumberland Resources Corp. - all of which provide management, engineering and safety services to Stillhouse Mining LLC - failed “to ensure that Stillhouse Mining LLC complies with all mining and safety laws and regulations.”

Claudia Cole, who is pushing for tougher legislation to improve communication at mine sites, said on Friday that she is also optimistic that she and her family will be granted a trial...

An investigation by the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing found inadequate coordination and communication from the Stillhouse mine management, along with improper training about the method of pillar extraction and the contents of the approved roof control pillar plan. The state released a report on the investigation in December 2005.

Attorney Tony Oppegard, who also represented families during hearings into the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 explosion in Holmes Mill, said the companies listed in Claudia Cole's complaint have 30 days to respond...

“The highest priority has to be Claudia's family. She (Claudia) is the sole means of support now. This is to help them financially so she can take care of her children,” Oppegard said. “No amount of money could replace her husband. Everyone knows that. But this is how our judicial system works.”

Oppegard said Russell Cole and Wilder essentially “walked into a death trap” at Stillhouse Mining LLC due to the lack of communication and training.

Ross Kegan, vice president of operations at Black Mountain Resources LLC, said on Friday that his company has not seen the complaint...

Also, from the AP story on the lawsuit:

...Another miner, Brandon Wilder, 23, was killed in the collapse. Wilder's body was recovered about eight hours after the collapse, but two more rock falls hindered the search and injured two people.

The deaths prompted $360,000 in federal fines against Stillhouse Mining.

They also focused attention on so-called retreat mining, a practice that has been blamed for the deaths of at least 17 coal miners in the past seven years. The process requires the removal of coal pillars, which hold up the roof.

The proposed federal fines against Stillhouse Mining were "On Hold," as of today, according to MSHA's data retrieval system.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Health Focus: More Unintended Consequences

Again, safety and health don't stop at the mine gate or at the boundaries of bureaucratic jurisdictions.

Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently covered a story that, among other things, touched on unintended health consequences, for one particular couple, of mining in their community. Subsidence is not uncommon in these coal fields, but in this case the consequences reportedly included illness from toxic mold -- and anxiety and panic attacks.

SPRAGGS, Pa. -- On Thanksgiving Day 2000, Roy and Diane Brendel had to eat turkey and trimmings down the road at her brother's house while Consol Energy carved a 6-foot-thick slab of the Pittsburgh coal seam out from under their National Historic Register-listed home.

It was the first time in 30 years that the Brendels couldn't host the Thanksgiving meal in what was then the finest example of Spanish Revival architecture in southwestern Pennsylvania. A family tradition was broken, and now, six agonizing, frustrating and painful years later, they have to admit that their home is too.

Known as the Ernest Thralls House in honor of its builder, the sandstone and stucco structure in Greene County fell more than four feet in the subsidence that followed Consol's Blacksville No. 2 longwall mine under the Brendels' 133 rural green acres. As it fell, the 12-room dwelling twisted, corkscrewing into the ground like some slow-motion version of Dorothy's house dropped on Munchkinland.

"When we came back from my brother's six years ago I sat here in the night listening to my entire house crack apart," Mrs. Brendel, 60, a retired elementary school teacher, said recently as she stood outside the severely damaged and soon-to-be-bulldozed home. "It was the most horrendous thing I'd ever been through." ....

As plaster walls cracked open wide enough to insert a fist, as doors went cockeyed and jammed shut, as stairs pulled off of their anchoring walls and hardwood floors buckled and humped, as water pipes burst and the ceramic tile roof leaked, the Brendels vowed to fight to the bitter end to get their historic home repaired.

...Although the state Department of Environmental Protection finally ordered Consol to repair the house this past spring, those repairs never happened. Black mold had by then infested the house so pervasively and produced such an unhealthy atmosphere their doctor told them to get out.

A month later the Brendels reluctantly agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Consol...

"We thought when the mining company got the repair order from the DEP they'd do something," Mrs. Brendel said. "When they failed to do anything yet again, I looked at Roy and he at me. Our eyes were watery red slits because of the mold. We had to move out." ...

The mold had its genesis, the Brendels say, when the home subsided and their basement sank below the local water table and flooded. It took Consol six months to install sump pumps. The mold permeated the house, inside the walls and under the floors. At the end it was so bad that this past summer they had to burn more than a third of their belongings -- furniture, clothes, books and bedding (and scrap most appliances) -- in the field out back.

"Our house is destroyed," said Mrs. Brendel, who felt so terrorized by the destruction of her home and the lack of help from state and federal agencies two years ago she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks." ...

Under terms of the settlement the Brendels received some money -- the amount hasn't been revealed because of a confidentiality agreement insisted on by Consol -- and the coal company bought the right to walk away without repairing the structure as required by the state's mining law, Act 54.

That still-controversial law, written in part by coal industry attorneys and quickly approved on the day before Christmas 1994, allowed coal companies to dig under homes and other structures built before 1966, provided the property owner was compensated for subsidence damage and water loss. Before 1994, coal companies had to leave pillars of coal to support such homes...

The law enables Consol and other coal companies to mine the rich Pittsburgh coal seam using longwall techniques. That full extraction method, used in seven massive mines in southwestern Pennsylvania, removes coal in horizontal "panels" 800 to 1,500 feet wide and two to three miles long, causing immediate subsidence on the surface...

Bethel Park-based Consol Energy, which had sued the Brendels, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Keeper of the National Historic Register in U.S. District Court to remove the Thralls House from the Register of Historic Places, confirmed that the terms of the settlement are "confidential," but declined any substantive comment on what happened to the house. The settlement ended that court case...

Mr. Brendel said they plan to raze their historic home early next spring and then break ground in the field behind their old house ... The new home will be built on stilts, like a beach house, in an effort to mitigate any future subsidence.

For now, they've moved into a new 30-foot trailer set up on a cracked macadam basketball court just behind the old house and surrounded by insulating hay bales for the winter. Though they're not looking forward to winter in the trailer, both say they are relieved that the battle over the house is done.

Hopey reports a comment by the couple's attorney that it was difficult to see how the mining company in this case came out ahead in the long run. If reputation has value, the company certainly seems to have lost some.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Poland: It's Over

While the U.S. celebrates its national day of thanksgiving, Poland has announced a national day of mourning for 23 coal miners killed Tuesday in an explosion, in fact three days according to Reuters:

...President Lech Kaczynski, who visited the coal mine during the rescue operations, said three days of national mourning would start immediately...

"We went looking for our living colleagues, who worked here with us, but from the start our hope of rescuing anyone alive were almost non-existent," rescue team leader Jan Gaura told reporters and families of the dead gathered outside the pit.

"With an explosion like this of methane I don't think they had a chance," he said, his voice breaking, rain drizzling down his dust-blackened shirt...

Kaczynski told reporters there would be a public inquiry into the cause of the disaster and said there were signs some of the miners were inexperienced and insufficiently qualified.

The spokesman for Polish state coal company Kompania Weglowa, Zbigniew Madej, said the bodies of all 23 had been found. "Everything suggests they died at the moment of the explosion," he said.

...Doctors and psychologists helped the waiting families into cars to be driven home. Michal Swierszcz, one of a team of doctors caring for the bereaved, said it would take relatives a long time to appreciate fully the scale of their loss.

"The real pain will come only in a few days time when they realize their homes are bare, that their father, brother, husband is gone, that the family is no longer whole," Swierszcz told Reuters...

I hope that the other mine employees and the rescue workers also get some help.

More details from Bloomberg:

...The final body was found at 6:30 a.m. local time, TVN 24 reported, citing unnamed rescuers.

The accident more than doubled the number of casualties in Polish mines, which have claimed 46 lives this year, up from 21 a year ago, according to data from the country's Mining Office.

Polish mines employ more people than any other industry in the country, and the number of fatal accidents is increasing. Mine operators, mainly controlled by the state, have been strapped for investment since the fall of communism in 1989 and last year thousands of miners marched in protests against planned job cuts.

...The temperature at the blast site was about 1,500 degrees after the explosion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Heartbreaking, and Too Familiar To Us Here

The developing news from Poland is bad. Rescue efforts for 15 coal miners trapped yesterday in an explosion have been hampered by heat and methane gas, and reports say that hopes are fading. Another 7 miners, who did not make it, already have been recovered. The Irish Times has confirmed an eighth found dead.

The German newspaper, Der Spiegel:

Up to 70 rescuers raced into the tunnel after the blast and, using heavy digging and cutting equipment, spent the night trying to clear nearly 500 meters of rubble to reach the trapped men. The temperature in the shaft is about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and rescuers were only able to stay underground for about half an hour before coming back up for air.

Reuters news service:

Officials said there was still a high risk of another explosion and the concentration of gas was rising. Polish television reported rescue work might resume at 1700 GMT.

"It is absolutely impossible to continue rescue work underground right now," Poland's president Lech Kaczynski told a news conference after visiting the site.
"Even though we should never lose hope, I will not hide the fact that the situation is very, very grim."

Officials said the blast appeared to have damaged an underground water pump, flooding the area and leaving little hope that anybody could still be found alive.
Family members waited patiently at the pit head for news of the missing men and were offered counselling by local doctors.

"I was once a miner myself. When I heard the news, my first thought was that my son is dead," Michal Wasowski, 55, whose son is among the missing.

"A methane explosion is one of the most horrible things that can happen underground and this time it happened to my son."

Der Spiegel provides more background:

The mine shaft where the blast occurred had been abandoned in March because the levels of gas made it too dangerous to work there. However, equipment worth €17 million had been left behind. Pawlaszek said the work was done under increased security and under the supervision of specialists in detecting gas.

Poland's labour unions have said that there has been a lack of investment and massive layoffs have resulted in falling safety standards at the nation's mines. More than 80 miners have died in the country since 2003. Opened in 1957 the Halemba pit is one of the country's oldest mines. A previous gas explosion there in 1990 killed 19 miners and injured 20, and in 1991 a cave-in killed another five.

And the Irish Times adds:

Poland's state-run mining industry, built up before the fall of communism in 1989 but starved of investment for years, has seen hundreds of deaths over the last few decades and its safety record has been among the worst in Europe.

The eight deaths in yesterday's blast brings the toll in explosions in Polish mines this year to 28.

Over the holiday, please spare a thought for these families, so very like our own. And in the words of the ancient poet Sophocles (from memory, the play Antigone, as freely translated by Dudley Fitts and Duncan Fizgerald):

"..think a word of love
For one whose paths turn under the dark earth
Where there are no more tears."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Emergency In Poland

Just now, from Reuters:

...A gas explosion killed at least eight miners and trapped around 15 others underground in a deep coal mine in southern Poland on Tuesday, officials said.

A major rescue effort was under way in the town of Ruda Slaska, around 300 km (190 miles) southwest of the capital, Warsaw.

A spokesman for the state-run Polish Coal Company said it was impossible to say whether rescuers would be able to reach the rest of the men who were trapped underground after a large explosion, probably caused by methane, at around 4:30 p.m. (1530 GMT).

"Four bodies have already been recovered and we have at least another four to bring out from under the rubble," coal company spokesman Zbigniew Madej told Reuters. "We fear the worst for the others," he added.

Officials said all the miners were equipped with personal breathing apparatus and were trained to cope with accidents, but even with this training it was not clear how long they could hold out without help from outside.

The temperature in the deep mine shaft was around 40 degrees Celsius, he said. "The conditions down there are extreme," Madej said. "It is hell."...

...The mine...lies at the heart of Silesia's industrial belt and has seen several disasters in the past...

...Families of the trapped miners gathered at the mine as news of the blast spread. Officials read out all names of the trapped people to the crowd. "Me and my son we are waiting for my husband," said Barbara Luczakiewicz, the wife of one of the trapped men. "We hope he will get out of there. I am very scared but I haven't lost hope."...

Drugs and Miner Safety in Ky.

Kentucky not long ago established the first-ever, so far as I know, government-administered drug testing program for miners. Yesterday, Ralph Dunlop of the Courier-Journal had a story about the realities of administering that program.

Under a law that took effect July 12, miners who test positive for drugs, or who refuse to submit to a test, are reported to the state and lose their mining privileges unless they agree to enter an employee-assistance program. Otherwise, they remain suspended until they successfully appeal for reinstatement.

As of late last week, 123 miners -- most from Eastern Kentucky -- had been suspended for failed or refused tests. Of the 66 who had appealed their suspensions, 53 have had their certificates restored. Most miners reinstated so far tested positive for cocaine, marijuana or a narcotic painkiller not prescribed to them.

But state officials are permitting miners to return to work without first investigating to determine whether they have criminal records related to drugs or alcohol, or showed signs of substance abuse at previous jobs.....

Asked how confident she is that the state is not sending drug-impaired miners back to work, Jane Rice Williams, chairwoman of the Kentucky Mining Board, replied: "I have no idea. That's part of the problem."

Other members of the seven-member board, which is responsible for restoring miners' suspended certifications, also have expressed concern about discerning the truth from the limited information they receive about cases.

Williams has abstained from most board votes because, she said, she feels so uninformed about the drug cases.

When state officials told the board Thursday that the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet lacks the necessary time and money to fully investigate miners' backgrounds, and that miners might find burdensome the expense of submitting to a substance-abuse evaluation, board member Tim Miller, a union representative from Western Kentucky, replied: "If we can save one life, it's worth it."

Today, the paper followed up with an editorial:

...The widely applauded new drug testing program for coal miners sounds very much like a joke. Months after the initiative was approved by the General Assembly, the Kentucky Mining Board and the state Mine Safety Review Commission can't even seem to agree on who is supposed to be doing what......

Meanwhile, miners who have failed or refused their drug tests are being sent back to work, without the kind of state investigations that would show whether they have criminal records related to drug and/or alcohol use, or whether previous employers saw signs of substance abuse.

Once reinstated, miners are allowed to choose the time and place where they will be checked for drug use, as opposed to facing random tests. That virtually ensures they will show up clean for their examinations, no matter how drug-ridden their usual behavior.

Anonymous Wrote...

Concerning an earlier post: "Three Get Prison Time for Lying To MSHA":

I saw that truck. It was death trap. The mine worked 24 hours a day, and the truck didn't have working headlamps. The air brakes leaked and would lose pressure after only a few seconds. The driver's side door didn't even have latch, let alone a lock. The door was "fixed" by bolting on a screen door sliding latch to keep the door shut. That latch was broken at the time of the accident. Drivers had to hold the door shut with one hand, and drive and shift with the other.

They got that kid killed for greed. It's a disappointment that they got off so light.

If your comment doesn't show up under "COMMENTS" immediately, don't worry. I'm "moderating"" comments right now, which is first of all to make sure that I don't miss seeing them myself, and second to keep out spam. Would you believe there are people who spam all sorts of blogs with "comments" that consist of ads for their own products, etc? I read, then it gets posted, unless it's something clearly out of bounds.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Unintended Consequences Can Go On and On

The L.A. Times has an extraordinarily long and thoughtful piece about the unintended health consequences of uranium mining that continue today, even though mines are long closed. Again, mine safety and health issues do not always stop at the mine gate. They can impact whole communities profoundly. The focus here is the Navajo reservation.

From 1944 to 1986, 3.9 million tons of uranium ore were chiseled and blasted from the mountains and plains. The mines provided uranium for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to develop an atomic bomb, and for the weapons stockpile built up during the arms race with the Soviet Union.

Private companies operated the mines, but the U.S. government was the sole customer. The boom lasted through the early '60s. As the Cold War threat gradually diminished over the next two decades, more than 1,000 mines and four processing mills on tribal land shut down.

The companies often left behind radioactive waste piles and open tunnels and pits. Few bothered to fence the properties or post warning signs. Federal inspectors seldom intervened.

Over the decades, Navajos inhaled radioactive dust from the waste piles, borne aloft by fierce desert winds.

They drank contaminated water from abandoned pit mines that filled with rain. They watered their herds there, then butchered the animals and ate the meat.

Their children dug caves in piles of mill tailings and played in the spent mines...

In every corner of the reservation, sandy mill tailings and chunks of ore, squared off nicely by blasting, were left unattended at old mines and mills, free for the taking. They were fashioned into bread ovens, cisterns, foundations, fireplaces, floors and walls.

Navajo families occupied radioactive dwellings for decades, unaware of the risks...

Early on, federal scientists knew that mine workers were at heightened risk for developing lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases in 15 or 20 years. Many did, and eventually their plight drew wide attention. In 1990, Congress offered the former miners an apology and compensation of up to $150,000 each.

But pervasive environmental hazards remained.

Now, the article relates, people on the reservation are still suffering high rates of cancer. The whole article speaks for itself and is well worth reading.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Not Letting the Grass Grow....

...the White House has again submitted the nomination of Richard M. Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for -- I believe -- the third time.

As everyone knows, Mr. Stickler recently was installed at MSHA as a recess appointee, and before that, served for some time at the Department of Labor on a contract basis.

Jordan Barab of Confined Space pointed out this latest development.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mine Safety Miscellany

MSHA is suggesting solar-powered lights for haul road illumination. Details here.

New lighting systems utilizing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) powered by solar cells provide innovative applications for haul road safety lighting. The low power drain of an LED makes solar power more practical than in the past. Installation requires no wiring. The placement of solar-powered LEDs for lighting a busy intersection, sharp curve, foggy area, narrow passage or any place of safety concern, is only limited by the ability of the solar cell to receive ample charge from sunlight.

There's somthing neat about the idea that even coal mines might have a good use for solar power.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette recently was on NPR, talking about mine safety. If there is anyone who hasn't yet heard it,you can listen here.

Not chargeable to the mining industry, tranportation accidents are still of major interest to mining communities. Today, a freight train hit a coal truck in West Virinia, reports WOWK TV. The driver fortunately escaped injury.

The Courier-Journal recently had an editorial:

Publicists for the Bush administration's new director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard Stickler, press the case that criticism of his controversial appointment is unjustified. They say he should be given a chance to use powerful enforcement tools that the agency hasn't used in the past, which allow for closures at mines that knowingly fail to comply with federal regulations.
Fine. But Mr. Stickler and everybody else entrusted with improving coal safety must remember that dead miners have run out of chances.

A fatal injury from a week back. This, unfortunately, was # 45 for the coal industry this year.

By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau
KAYENTA — Employees of Peabody Western Coal Co. are mourning the loss of a fellow worker at the Kayenta Mine....

The 52-year-old electrician died around 9 p.m. Sunday after receiving an electrical shock while working to restore power to a dragline, [Peabody spokeswoman Beth] Sutton said.

"We express our thoughts, prayers and deepest sympathy to the family."

The electrician was believed to be working on a dragline trailing cable, which powers the dragline, when the accident occurred.

..."Traditionally, Kayenta Mine's safety record has been better than the industry average, with employees achieving about one-third the industry incident rate for U.S. surface mines," Sutton said.

Cindy Skryzicki in the Washington Post may have hinted at oversight for MSHA by the new Congress.

One notable change in direction is expected from Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and the incoming head of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where he has been the ranking minority member for six years.

"It's been clear there has been no oversight; not even mildly aggressive oversight," said Miller, whose panel oversees regulatory policy at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration....

Miller said in an interview that he doesn't have a lengthy agenda but that he wants to examine the value of voluntary compliance programs and self-reporting of OSHA violations by employers.

Labor unions are expected to get some of their issues back on the agenda, especially because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, will head the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Soapbox Moment

At a legal conference in Washington, D.C., today, there were some quite harsh things said about the media in relation to mine disasters.

Since I’ve worked both sides of the aisle, government and journalism, I’ve seen how a mine disaster changes lives – everyone’s. I’ve seen, and experienced, the emotional agony on all sides. I’ve experienced things that caused me to feel quite cynical, and I’ve found that cynicism is not always justified and can sometimes, with care, be overcome.

So I am putting on my old “public affairs” hat to set out some personal opinion, which goes for any organization involved with a mine emergency – government, industry, miners’ representatives, law firms, whatever. For some, this is preaching to the choir, of course. But I do think that if more people understood some things better, it would benefit the whole mining community.

First off: If you start out with a cynical and adversarial attitude to the media, the media tend to respond in kind.

Try to forget the paparazzi that chased Lady Diana into the fatal tunnel; they are not covering mine safety.

Some media may start out with a cynical and adversarial attitude to you, or just some prejudices and preconceptions. But by showing good faith – honestly, calmly and with patience – you really can sometimes modify that stance during the course of an emergency or investigation. Not always, to be sure; that is one of the frustrations of the profession, but at least half the time. I’ve seen it happen.

All writing teachers advise writers, “Show, not tell.” It’s the same with communications. Don’t just assert good faith. Demonstrate it. Your acts – and your organization’s acts -- are as important as your statements in communicating who you are.

Reporters by and large do not set out to hurt survivors of accidents. Reporters and editors are individuals, of course, and some are a good deal less than sensitive. The more local they are, sometimes the greater comprehension and sensitivity for members of the community, which is natural. I have seen a local TV reporter make a point to turn his camera around, facing away from family members as they left a mine site. But believe it or not, a lot of major media reporters also can be quite human when treated as such.

If they can’t get facts from an official source, preferably more than one source, then reporters are forced to turn to people on the sidelines, who do not know the whole situation, who may only know rumors, who may be shell-shocked and hurting and upset. Telling an editor, “Sorry, no one will talk to me,” just isn’t an option.

Stonewalling leads people to conclude there is something to hide. Then they can easily think you are not in good faith. Stonewalling appears to say something about you, even when you are not saying anything.

You don’t have to wait for the media to come to you with questions, either. If you have something to communicate, you can reach out.

In the course of an emergency, or investigation, keep up a flow of meaningful information over time. As public relations people say, “Feed the ‘beast.’” The beast may turn out to be less than beastly. Yes, you can do this without compromising an investigation.

Attorneys are good communicators but tend to be consumed with strictly legal issues during and after an emergency. Other officials may be a better choice to take the lead in managing the media. A professional communicator can be a good choice, preferably one who knows a fair amount about mining, since this is such as specialized field.

Make sure your professional communicator is really part of your team, really knows what’s going on, and has at least some authority to make on-the-spot judgment calls. When this person is just a mouthpiece and buffer who has to play Mother-May-I with higher authority over every little detail, people can tell. It’s not as bad as stonewalling, but it can contribute to cynicism. Teaming a professional communicator with a subject matter expert or official can work very well.

The public these days is quite sophisticated about “spin.” When making certain decisions, the high road is to consider what that decision is likely to say about you, in the eyes of the public, rather than expecting the public relations department to “spin” whatever decision is made. Think about the Tylenol case.

Finally, news media attention is needed. None of us would really be happy if it went away. For instance, how would you like it, if there was a major emergency or other public issue in your community, and you were told not to ask questions? If information came only from the government and organizations with a vested interest? If there were no alternate viewpoints available? The media fill a vital function, and as part of their job, they sometimes have to cross-check "official" stories and exercise a certain level of skepticism. Besides the "who, what, when, and where," they probe in order to fulfill people's natural concern with "how" and "why."

They don't always do it well. Media coverage, like other human endeavors, is rarely perfect. Most people at times feel one outlet or another is unfair. And sometimes they are right. But if so, it makes more sense to keep dialogue open, when possible, and try to improve things, rather than write off the whole endeavor.

Okay, climbing off the soapbox now.

Monday, November 13, 2006

International Update

This morning brought a fresh crop of international news:


Another coal mine explosion this morning.

Coal mine blast kills 24 miners in northern China

At least 24 miners were killed and 10 others trapped Monday by an explosion in a coal mine in northern China, state media reported, the latest in a string of fatal incidents to hit the country's dangerous mining industry....

The mine was operating illegally in defiance of a government order issued in September to cease production after its safety license expired, CCTV said.

A man who answered the phone at the administrative office of Lingshi's county government said he was "unclear" about the incident and refused to take further questions. The Nanshan mine was not listed in the local telephone directory.

Also Monday, the death toll in another coal mine explosion in the same province climbed by 12 to 35, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Twelve more miners were still missing from the Nov. 5 gas blast at the Jiaojiazhai mine in Xinzhou

At the same time we learn a Chinese mine safety official has been sentenced to prison for taking bribes:

A former official of the Shanxi Provincial Coal Mine Safety Supervision Administration has been sentenced to 13 years behind bars for taking huge bribes and possessing huge mount of property with unproven sources, court source said Sunday....

The court found that Diao Min, former chief of the technology and equipment department of the provincial coal mine safety supervision administration, had took bribes totaling 1.01 million yuan (about 126,000 U.S. dollars) plus 8,000 U.S. dollars by taking advantage of his post between 2001 and 2004.

The court found that Diao took the money to help bribers to pass safety examinations and assessment.


A major coal mine roof fall yesterday has killed several and left an uncertain number of miners trapped.

KOTHAGUDEM: Four persons, including an undermanager, were killed as the roof of...one of the oldest underground mines of Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL), caved in near Kothagudem at 8.50 a.m. on Sunday. A foreign national and a mining engineer of a private company, both working on new machinery introduced in the mine, were rescued seven hours after the incident.

No regular miner was on duty at the time of the accident as it was a weekly day off for the coal workers of the project. The roof fall occurred when `continuous miner', the machine provided by `Joy Mining', was about to resume its operations in the day. Six persons, including Thomas N. Kosi (South African national), shuttle car operator of the machine, and Pratap Kumar Sharma, both representing the private company, were inside the mine. They were heading for the 32 dip area when a huge block of the coal seam came down sealing their exit....

Coal workers and union leaders rushed to the spot, but failed to reach the workers trapped in the debris about 1.1 km away from the pithead. The rescue teams reached the spot promptly but it took more than four hours for them to clear their way. P. Sudheerbabu, undermanager, N. Ramji, 47, overman, and K. Ramachander, 37, and P. Buchaiah, 38, both general mazdoors - all from SCCL -- died on the spot. Two bodies could be taken out from the mine. A team of officials from the Safety Department and the company directors were monitoring the salvage operations. The accident was viewed as the worst-ever in Kothagudem area, which was relatively free from such incidents during the past one-and-a half decade....

Another story has six dead:

Six people were killed and many trapped after the roof of a coal mine in south India's Andhra Pradesh caved in Sunday, Indo-Asian News Service reported.

The dead included an employee of an Australian company responsible for maintenance works, according to state-owned Singareni Collieries Company Ltd....

The company has launched rescue operations as hundreds of employees gathered outside.

No information has been available for exactly how many miners being trapped underground.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

International Roundup


A rock fall in Tasmania that killed one miner and trapped two others for 14 days this April at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine is still under investigation. The head of the Australian Workers Union expressed confidence in the investigation, but was not sure if it's safe for the mine to re-open.

The miners, Todd Russell and Brant Webb, recently addressed an AWU conference and have written a book about their experience.

Meanwhile, the mininster of mines for Queensland held special safety meetings after the Moranbah North coal mine had eight accidents in 3 months.

Coal mine owner Anglo says work practices at the troubled Moranbah North Mine stand up to scrutiny against any in the world....

There have been four roof collapses...and two miners seriously hurt in accidents since August.


The 8th European Development fund is buying new safety equipment to help extend the life of the "threatened" BCL Mine. In all, 3,335 AfroxPac 35’s are being bought. was awarded to Afrox’s safety self-rescue division.

The manufacturer's description of the AfroxPac 35 is here. Apparently it suppplies 35 minutes of oxygen. In African mines, emphasis often is on getting miners safely to refuge areas underground.

The European Development Fund is a European Community venture.


It is hard to keep up with the accidents in China. Reuters has a recent summary:

BEIJING, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Accidents at two Chinese coal mines have killed at least seven workers as the death toll from a gas explosion at a third mine a week ago rose to 23, the official Xinhua news agency said.

In the latest disaster to hit the coal-dependent nation, two miners were killed on Friday after the wagon in which they were travelling broke free from a steel cord in the Xinchun mine in Jilin province in the northeast, Xinhua said.

The news came as the toll from an explosion on Wednesday at the privately owned Xinpo mine in the central province of Hunan rose to five, with at least 12 still unaccounted for, it said. Both the chief and deputy head of that mine had fled the scene.

Meanwhile, hopes had all but faded for 24 workers missing at the mine in the northern province of Shanxi, where Xinhua said 23 miners were now known to have died in a gas blast a week ago.....

Accidents in China's coal mines killed 345 miners in October, nearly 50 percent more than in the previous month, despite years of government pledges to improve standards.

Between January and October, around 3,630 Chinese miners died in more than 2,000 accidents.


BEIJING: Ten miners were killed in northern China after a coal mine was flooded, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

The mishap occurred Tuesday at an illegal mine in Shanxi's provincial capital of Taiyuan, Xinhua said, citing an unnamed spokesman with the Taiyuan municipal bureau.
Rescuers have recovered all 10 bodies, the agency said.

Xinhua did not say what caused the flood. Police were searching for the owner of the mine.

And finally, the enforcement outcome from a previous incident:

A coal mine in southwest China's Guizhou province has been fined 2.65 million yuan (about 330,000 U.S. dollars) following a fatal gas leak that killed 15 miners in March, according to the local coal mine safety watchdog on Wednesday.

Wulunshan colliery, which was being built when the tragedy occurred, was immediately ordered to cease construction and ordered to take measures to improve safety in the coal mine...

The gas leak occurred at 10 p.m. March 26 when 104 miners were carrying out construction work underground. The release of a sudden burst of gas killed 15 workers. Eighty-nine miners managed to escape.

Investigations showed that Wulunshan Coal Industry Co. Ltd. had failed to properly study the complicated geological conditions in the area and had not taken efficient measures to prevent a gas leak.

Company management was inadequate and safety measures were not strictly implemented, according to investigations.

The investigation also revealed that construction of the coal mine had begun without approval from higher authorities, and that managers had falsified files of miners working underground. Miners had received no training in how to prevent and escape gas leaks, according to investigators.

Qin Lerao, chairman of the board of directors and general manager of the company, received a serious warning from the Party and was fined 30,000 yuan (3,750 U.S. dollars).

Ten other company managers received Party warnings, administrative sanctions, demotions or fines or were dismissed....

South Africa

Officials are discussing more measures to curb accidents.

SAFETY programmes in the country’s mines were not enough to prevent disasters, Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica told Parliament’s minerals and energy committee yesterday

“What is required is an early warning sign technology that will make it possible for these accidents to be predicted,” she said.

While efforts were being made to develop this, the task of protecting lives was not easy, she said. “In the absence of such a technology, fatal accidents won’t disappear in our mines.”

However, government did not have the option of closing down “unsafe” mines since that would lead to massive job losses.

Sonjica said her department was working with the industry to find a solution to the safety problem. “I think we also need to admit that by its very nature this is a dangerous environment.”

African National Congress MP Nomvula Mathibela said the industry’s safety record and the recent increase in fatal mine accidents were among factors discouraging more women from working in the industry.

“Some of the mines in Carletonville are more than 3km deep, and they are still digging deeper. There are so many accidents in our mines and something needs to be done to prevent people from dying,” the MP said.

Her comments come a fortnight after the death of five miners trapped underground at AngloGold Ashanti’s Tau Tona mine near Carletonville.

Second Report on Aracoma Mine Fire Disaster

West Virginia recently released a second report on the Aracoma fire that killed two this January. This one's by Davitt McAteer. The full picture is coming together as more details make their way out.

I haven't yet had a chance to read the new report thoroughly, so take a look at the extended commentary on Jordan Barab's Confined Space, here.

Noteworthy news coverage includes an in-depth Charleston Gazette-Mail piece today.

And this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Future Minority Leader Married to MSHA's Boss

Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao's husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is now poised to become the Republican Minority Leader, AP reports.

Chao, of course, oversees both MSHA and OSHA.

According to the wire service,

McConnell was best known until recently for blocking new limits on campaign donations, an effort that gained him a reputation as Darth Vader to his rivals. That success ended in 2002 when Congress passed a campaign finance bill.

John Cheves had a long article last month in the Lexington Herald-Leader on the working partnership between McConnell and Chao.

He revisited a notorious incident in which, it is claimed, a prominent mine operator tried to intimidate MSHA officials by trumpeting his relationship with McConnell.

"Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss," according to notes of the meeting. "They," Murray added, pointing at two MSHA men, "are gone."

The article noted:

Murray, a large man with a fierce temper, is a huge donor to Republican senators. McConnell, R-Ky., rose through the ranks by raising money for those senators.


Murray, in a recent interview, denied that he referred to McConnell "sleeping with" Chao.....

"After what he apparently said about me, he wouldn't make my list [of the five finest men]," McConnell said....

Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, acknowledged in a recent interview that he loudly complained about MSHA manager Thompson at the meeting. Thompson harassed his mines for no reason and even shut down operations in one for hours, he said.
He said it's possible he mentioned his friend McConnell. His company's political-action committee has given about $360,000 in campaign donations since 2000, nearly all to Republicans, including McConnell. Murray personally has given about $100,000.
"I have no idea why I would have brought up Sen. McConnell, but I can tell you I have a tremendous respect for what he does," Murray said. Regarding Thompson's transfer, Murray added: "I said he should be removed. But they didn't do it because I said so"....

After the Murray incident was reported in various publications, Thompson said he was angry that his name had been released, and scared that McConnell would be mad at him. So, he said, he sent a polite letter this year to McConnell to make it clear that he didn't blame the senator or his wife for his problems. He has never been given a reason for his transfer, he said.

Apart from that incident,

Some MSHA officials talk of being pressured to go soft even when they uncover serious problems.

In April, MSHA inspector Danny Woods told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that colleagues wanted to shut down part of a Massey coal mine in West Virginia in January because spilled coal and dust had accumulated along a belt line, raising the risk of a fire. The request was denied. Woods said inspectors were told "to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal."

Days later, on Jan. 19, a fire in that part of the mine killed two miners. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere recently said MSHA is investigating Woods' allegation, so she cannot discuss it.

McConnell apparently has avoided direct involvement.

McConnell, a longtime advocate of tax breaks for mine owners, has had relatively little to say about miners, although he represents thousands. The United Mine Workers of America said they count a number of Republican and Democratic senators as champions of miners, willing to tour mines and promote safety legislation. But not McConnell, the union said.

"He's not done anything to help us with mine safety," said Bill Banig, the union's legislative director. "It does seem odd, given the state that he represents."
Law, the deputy labor secretary, said Chao's Labor Department has markedly improved enforcement on mine safety since 2001.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Three Get Prison Time for Lying to MSHA

Three officials of a small auger coal mine in Illinois got prison sentences for lying to MSHA investigators. This is not routine; going to prison over mine safety is not unknown, but is rare. We've mainly seen similar sentences in a few major disasters and in systematic mine safety and health related frauds.

BENTON, Ill. - A man convicted along with his son of lying to government investigators about a 2003 death at a southern Illinois coal mine was ordered Thursday to spend three years in federal prison and pay $10,000 in fines. Lester Erb Jr., 49, formerly of Harrisburg, also was sentenced to two years of supervised release.

In June, a U.S District Court jury convicted Erb and his son, Lester Erb III, 29, of lying to U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators after the death of Adam Scott at a surface mine in Gallatin County. A federal judge sentenced Lester Erb III in September to three months in prison, $500 in fines and two years of supervised release.....

Authorities say Adam Scott, 20, was driving a Midwest Auger dump truck loaded with 14 tons of coal up a steep slope at the mine when the vehicle either lost traction or stalled and began rolling backward. Scott apparently tried to jump for safety from the vehicle but was killed when the truck overturned onto him, pinning him and burying him under the payload of black ore.

Investigators later blamed the accident on the truck's unsafe operating condition, ruling that the truck's brakes were incapable of stopping the loaded truck on the grade. Those investigators also said a hole in the brake air line was patched with electrical tape....

Another defendant, Larry Bunner, of Cannelton, Ind., was sentenced in April to six months in federal prison followed by two years of supervised release for lying to investigators of Scott's death.

MSHA cited three (d) violations in its investigation, all related to the condition of the truck, which also had no seat belt. The agency proposed civil penalties totaling $93,000, which were under appeal.

Mine operator Midwest Auger Co. would auger a highwall after another mine had already got all the coal they could out of it by normal strip mining, according to MSHA's investigation report. The company had worked the site for about a year and had two operations at the time of the accident, both now abandoned.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What the Election May Mean for MSHA

Late yesterday AP finally reported that Jim Webb defeated George Allen here in Virginia. By then, Webb's lead as reflected on the state's official website had been over 7,300 votes and essentially stable all day long. For some reason Sen. Allen still had not "decided to end the campaign" according to a staffer speaking anonymously. However, everyone seems to be moving on.

Results for miners: Assistant Secretary for MSHA Richard M. Stickler, recently installed by recess appointment despite Senatorial and other objections, now has a little over a year to prove himself a fair and effective administrator before that appointment expires.

If he can do that, he might possibly earn reappointment for another year with the consent of the Democratic Senate. There will greater pressure to accomodate a variety of views, especially those of labor.

By the way, the coalfield counties of Dickenson and Buchanan went for Webb, as well as the city of Norton. When UMWA President Cecil Roberts campaigned for Jim Webb there there days ago, the Virginian- Pilot reported, the Buchanan County high school auditorium "shook like a revival tent."

Monday, November 06, 2006

A "Broader Look" At Death In the Coal Mines

The Charleston Gazettte-Mail Sunday published the first in what it says will be a series of pieces taking "a broader look" at coal mine safety.

The Sunday Gazette-Mail wanted to take a broader look, to examine the daily dangers faced by the 79,000 coal miners who help provide more than half of the nation’s electricity.

Reporter Ken Ward Jr. had been covering mine safety on and off for much of his 15 years at the newspaper. And he had recently been awarded a six-month fellowship by the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study the coal industry.

Under the direction of City Editor Robert J. Byers, Ward narrowed the focus of his fellowship to a project on coal mine safety. This story, the first in a series of special reports, is the result of that work.

Comment: there are various valid ways to define the number of coal miners. I am not sure of the definition the Gazette has used. Under MSHA's law, generally, the simple fact of working at a mine site is what makes someone a miner. According to MSHA's website, the industry reported 116,436 coal mine site employees in 2005. MSHA's database includes independent contractor employees, who in some mines work right alongside regular employees, and in others provide specialized services.

MSHA's breakdown by work location is: underground mines, 49,495; surface mines, 45,270; coal preparation plants, 15,397; mine-site offices, 5,516; independent equipment shops and yards (typically serving several mines), 858.

MSHA's database also documents the increase in coal mine employment, which apparently hit bottom in 2003 and has risen since.

At about 6:30 a.m. Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine, a small underground operation in Upshur County, W.Va. One miner was killed by the blast, and 11 others suffocated before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later.

Two weeks later, two miners died in a fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

On May 20, five miners died in an explosion at the Darby Mine in Eastern Kentucky, making 2006 the first time in two decades that there have been two mine disasters in the same year.

Outraged lawmakers gave fiery speeches. They demanded tougher enforcement and regulatory reforms. Reporters from New York and television crews from Washington poured into coal country to interview grieving widows and write exposés on mine disasters.

No one seemed to notice a larger pattern was continuing.

The paper rightly points out that the coal mine deaths occurring in ones and twos continue -- and are on the increase. Coal fatalities this year are up, even if for some reason a statistician were to discount completely the 19 deaths in the three high-profile disasters -- Sago, Aracoma and Kentucky Darby.

This weekend, two more coal miners were killed, bringing the national total to 45. As a result coal mine deaths this year are more than double last year's full-year total of 22, with almost 2 months of 2006 still to go.

The Gazette-Mail analysis found:

Mine operators were faulted for not performing — or incorrectly performing — required safety checks in nearly one-fourth of the mining deaths between 1996 and 2005. More than one-quarter of the fatal accidents involved mining equipment that operators had not maintained in safe working condition. Mine operators violated roof control, mine ventilation or other required safety plans in 21 percent of the coal-mining deaths examined. Mine managers did not train or provided inadequate training to miners in more than 20 percent of those accidents....

Agreement is just about universal that rule-breaking is a significant problem.

...“I believe most of the accidents that have occurred in my memory happened because the law and regulations were not followed,” [newly appointed MSHA director Richard Stickler said earlier this year.

The Gazette's aggregated findings about penalties also are interesting:

In the last 10 years, MSHA has fined coal operators more than $14 million for violations that contributed to miners’ deaths, according to a first-of-its-kind computer analysis by the Gazette-Mail.

Per violation, MSHA officials fined companies a median of $22,000, about one-third of the maximum allowed by law. For each miner killed, agency officials assessed a median fine of $4,250.

The maximum legal MSHA civil penalty for any single violation has been $60,000. Some fatalities involve multiple MSHA violations.

But fines are lowered or thrown out by judges. MSHA settles for less to avoid legal fights. Companies go belly up and don’t pay, or MSHA does not aggressively pursue payments. In some cases, appeals are still pending for deaths that occurred years ago.

Overall, companies have paid $3.4 million, about one-fourth of what MSHA has sought, according to the Gazette-Mail analysis.

In cases where fines were issued and are not under appeal, coal operators have paid a median fine per miner death of $6,200.

The Gazette piece also points at slowed action on promises at the state level:

...lawmakers unanimously approved [Governor] Manchin’s landmark plan to require rapid rescue response to mine emergencies, mandate electronic tracking of miner locations underground, and force coal companies to provide additional emergency oxygen underground. Other states and the federal government have followed with similar mine rescue initiatives.

But in the 10 months since Sago and Aracoma, Manchin has not acted on other promises or proposals to prevent mine accidents.

The governor has never introduced his promised legislation to ban the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground mines. Critics say the practice, legalized nationwide in 2004 by the Bush administration, helps spread fires, smoke and deadly gases....

In late July, the [state] mine safety office finalized a rule that reduces the amount of training miners must receive to be certified to perform electrical work in underground mines.

More to come, evidently. This doesn't fully reflect the piece, which includes a lot of detail about specific accidents and their impact on people's lives, for which you should really read the whole piece.

Meanwhile, I wish someone, someday would give this kind of intensive scrutiny to accidents in metal and nonmetal mines as well -- "metal and nonmetal" being mine-speak for gold mines, underground and surface stone quarries, gravel dredges, salt mines, sand pits, copper mines, gem mines, and dozens of other types, everything but coal. Every state in the union has some of these mines and - until the events of this year made the coal industry record much worse -- these miners were suffering virtually as many deaths as coal miners in recent years.

Metal and nonmetal miners remain invisible to most, in that there is no geographical concentration, no single labor organization or other advocate, to unify and highlight their story.

Friday, November 03, 2006

More Aracoma Details

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette has a comprehensive story this morning. Some highlights:

It’s not surprising that this happened, given the conditions in this mine,” said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky mine safety expert who reviewed the state’s Aracoma report. “It was basically a recipe for disaster.”

On top of the seven contributory citations issued to the company, sixteen individual Aracoma employees — mostly salaried mine managers — were also cited personally for “knowingly” violating a variety of safety rules. The violations included not performing required safety checks and removing air-flow control walls. State officials recommended that they be stripped of their mining licenses.
"Knowing and willful" is the key phrase for potential federal criminal charges. Reportedly the U.S. Attorney's ofice has already been already inquiring into that for some time.

Gov. Joe Manchin added that state inspections prior to the fire “did not fully and accurately capture the safety conditions present at this particular mine.”
It was not immediately clear if Manchin was referring to the fact that state inspectors did not perform required annual electrical inspections at Aracoma in 2004 and 2005, or to other oversights not previously made public by the state.

Some questions there for MSHA, too.

"They were on the wrong side of the chimney,” said Tim Bailey, a Charleston lawyer who represents miners in safety cases. “It sucked that smoky air right up to where these men were.”

This is so reminiscent of the 1984 Wilberg mine fire, where 27 died -- only in that case, the smoke got to the miners because a ventilation control called an "overcast" burned through.

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we get some more details, for instance:

When the fire erupted, miners used handheld fire extinguishers, and discovered that fire hose couplings did not match the water line fixtures, which turned out to have no water anyway.

Bryan Cabell, a mine belt examiner, told investigators he used up two or three handheld extinguishers, then attempted to attach a fire hose to a valve, but discovered the unmatched fittings.

"There was a fire hose lying beside a hard water line by the storage unit. I proceeded to hook it up. I could not get it to hook up onto the fire tap," Mr. Cabell testified. He just threw the fire hose down and opened the valve, "hoping I could direct it towards the fire, but there was no water in it."

A co-worker tried to locate a cutoff valve where the water supply apparently had been shut off, but was driven back by heavy smoke.

"The fire was burning out of control and no means was available to fight the fire," the report states.

Side note to readers: If something important is missing from this blog, please don't assume it's deliberate. The same goes for highlighting one outlet's version of a story or another. I'm trying to be a bit helpful and interesting, but sometimes can't keep up with what's out there, and can't realistically promise to be authoritative.

If something's really wrong or offensive, please holler at me: ncwaort5 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

OMHST Aracoma Report Out

AP appears to be first out of the box with a story:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State investigators said missing walls and mismatched and faulty firefighting equipment contributed to the deaths of two miners in a fire last January.

The blaze, which broke out in a conveyor belt, filled the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine with smoke, and the miners died after becoming separated from their crew.

Investigators found the that fire started from the friction of a misaligned belt in a conveyor that carries coal out of the shaft.

The Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training found that the mine lacked "stoppings" - walls typically constructed of blocks to seal off parts of a mine and control air flow - and that their absence let smoke enter the main escape route.

Also, water lines for firehoses and sprinklers were shut off, and hoses could not be connected because the fittings did not match, the investigators said.

The agency issued 169 violation notices and recommended withdrawal or suspension of seven miners' certificates, the report said.

The Charleston Gazette was not far behind:

Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary was cited for seven violations that state investigators said contributed to the fatal fire.

Those included:

| Allowing air to flow into the mine in the opposite direction from spelled out in approved ventilation plans, sending clean air away from the face where miners worked.

| Not maintaining fire hose equipment in good working condition, and not providing a water supply into the area of the conveyor belt where the fire occurred.

| Not keeping the mine's primary escapeway isolated from the rest of the mine. A missing piece of mine wall allowed smoke to enter the escapeway, forcing miners who were attempting to escape to find an alternate route. During this effort, Bragg and Hatfield became separated from the other miners.

| Not maintaining the mine's main conveyor belt in good working order, in that improperly installed components caused the belt to run out of alignment, creating friction that led to the fire.

| Not notifying the crew that Bragg and Hatfield worked on about the fire in a timely manner to allow them to quickly evacuate the mine.

In other words, it took multiple serious failures to cause this tragedy. These stories describe a devastating combination of safety protections to have been neglected all at at the same time.

Aracoma Report Coming Out After All

West Virginia has corrected its misstep on the Aracoma coal mine fire report, the Charleston Gazette reports:

The report will be released this afternoon, after it is provided to families of the two miners and to Massey officials, said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

“Our plan is to have it on the Web by about 2 p.m.,” Wooten said. The agency’s Web site is www.wvmine.org .

Good decision. More to come later:

Davitt McAteer, Manchin’s special mine safety investigator, has not yet completed his independent review of the Aracoma fire. Federal prosecutors are also continuing a criminal investigation, U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller said Wednesday.

And the MSHA report as well.

In a heartening development, the Montgomery, W.Va., Herald reports:

MONTGOMERY — Rep. Nick Rahall and others gathered here late last month with the hope that a year which began in mourning and tragedy for West Virginia coal miners and their families can end with optimism for a safer future.....

Rahall was in town to unveil the Mine Safety Technology Consortium, a key element of the Mine Safety Technology Innovation Capability and Regional Business Development Program. The project will have its headquarters in Montgomery....

The $4 million project is funded by a $2 million Economic Development Authority grant and $1 million in state funding. Private donations, including $200,000 from State Electric and $100,000 from Arch Coal, also helped bring the concept to fruition.

Take note of the private funding. Arch Coal deserves kudos for stepping up to the plate. In other countries like Australia and South Africa, mining companies regularly pool funds to support safety research. Here, it's rare -- in fact, this might be the first time a mining firm has done something like this.

Arch's news release:

...The Arch Coal Foundation today announced that it would donate a total of $100,000 over the next three years to Marshall University's new Mine Safety Technology Innovation Capability and Regional Business Development program.

"This program will help focus some of the country's best minds on identifying new technologies and practices for the next generation of coal mining safety," said Steven F. Leer, chairman and chief executive officer of Arch Coal, Inc. "As a long-standing supporter of mine safety initiatives, we're pleased to provide financial backing to the academic community to help discover and deploy cutting-edge technologies that will advance the coal industry and its safety practices."...

In other good news, 16 Chinese miners have dug their own way out after a landslide at the mine entrance trapped them inside, according to an Aussie media report:

Sixteen miners trapped for 14 hours in a northwestern China coal mine have dug themselves out, state press reported Thursday.

The miners were trapped in the Deshun coal mine near Lanzhou city, Gansu province, mid-morning Wednesday when 1.4 million cubic meters of mud slid down a mountain and blocked the mine entrance, Xinhua news agency said.

"We were frightened at the beginning, but we soon calmed down because we knew we were not far from the ground surface," the report quoted a miner surnamed Wang as saying.

"Later we heard the sound of excavators digging and that boosted our morale enormously."

The miners dug an eight-meter (26-foot) tunnel with shovels and other mining tools taking 14 hours to reach freedom, it said....

But unfortunately, at least 29 didn't make it out after an explosion, also in China, the International Herald Tribune reported:

The death toll in a coal mine explosion in western China rose by nine to 29 as rescuers found more bodies in the shaft, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Another 19 workers were injured in the blast, which tore through the Weijiadi mine Tuesday in Baiyin, a city in Gansu province, Xinhua said.

Some 71 workers were working underground at the time and 36 managed to escape, it said. Another six were rescued later, Xinhua said in a report late Tuesday....

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Aracoma Report Not Coming Out After All

Churning out the work, the state of West Virginia yesterday announced it would issue its report on the Aracoma mine fire tomorrow. But I just got an e-mail -- it's off.

The accident killed two on January 19 and attracted national attention because it happened so soon after the Sago explosion. Preliminary information was that the fire started near a longwall conveyor belt drive. Miners Don Bragg and Ellery ("Elvis") Hatfield became separated from their group in heavy smoke during the evacuaton. Mine rescue teams recovered them on January 21.

According to the Charleston Daily Mail, a Republican politician immediately slammed the report's release prior to Election Day as "politically motivated."

"Anyone that doesn't see through that has a blindfold on," [Senate Minority Leader Vic] Sprouse said.

Massey Energy, which owns the Aracoma Mine, is headed by Don Blankenship, who has spent

$1,033,799 on "electioneering communications" between Sept. 11 and Oct. 27

the Daily Mail recently reported.

The Herald-Dispatch recently ran an in-depth appraisal of Mr. Blankenship's unusual role in state politics:

Among the unusual facets:

Pam Carden, a GOP contender for a 15th District seat in the House, has received no money from Blankenship, but has been listed as a candidate he supports in mailings, billboards and television ads -- support that has neither been solicited nor appreciated.

"I have a campaign manager, and he's pulling his hair out," she said.

And West Virginia University's Daily Athenium has more:

Blankenship's campaign works in West Virginia but might not be legal in other states, said West Virginia University political science professor Neil Berch.

"For example, I don't think he could do this in Maine, where they have limits not just on independent spending but on direct campaign contributions. There are a lot of states where if a certain amount is spent against you then you get some public funding," Berch said.

Further from the latest Daily Mail story:

"The coordination between government officials and incumbent politicians running for office next Tuesday is very apparent," Blankenship said. "The behavior of the state officials and the politicians threaten all businessmen and every West Virginian's freedom of speech."

Prs. Bush as we know, lately recess-appointed Richard Stickler, whose career included a stint at Massey Energy, to head the federal mine-safety agency, despite his being twice rejected by the Senate. (See yesteday's post.)

Critics would have it that the Aracoma families should feel angry at the state for scheduling release of the Aracoma investigation report at this time. Some of us -- though I would not think of claiming to speak on behalf of the families -- are mainly just interested in finding out the results of the investigation, peferably as soon as may be.

The Daily Mail article noted, however, that the state admitted skirting a 5-day notice requirement for public meetings. The reason given was that tomorrow was the most convenient day for the Governor to meet with the families in order to present the report before it goes out to the public.

MSHA Seems Awfully Quiet About This

West Virginia this week alerted the mining industry to a survey of SCSR's that indicated quite a few units out there could have been damaged by heat exposure, specially given that gauges to indicate excessive heat exposure only came in a couple of years ago.

Self Contained Self-Rescuers - West Virginia Inventory Report and Initial Findings of Long-term Temperature Extremes on Self-Contained Self-Rescuers

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a summary by Dennis Roddy:

The state agency overseeing mine safety in West Virginia yesterday issued a warning that could result in the recall of potentially thousands of underground emergency breathing units because there is no way of knowing if they have been exposed to excessive heat.

Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miner Health Safety and Training, said early data from the first survey of self-contained rescuers at the state's coal mines revealed that 2,750 devices designed to supply an hour's worth of oxygen to trapped miners have no gauge or monitor that would show if they had been exposed to excessive heat that would render them useless....

"CSE relies on the operators and federal and state mine inspectors to assist the miners in identifying and removing damaged units in accordance with manufacturer inspections," [CEO Scott] Shearer wrote. "When OMHST ignores manufacturer warnings on temperature and physical damage resulting in carrying units that are so obviously damaged into mines, OMHST sends the wrong message to the industry."

It's the third recent alert about possible reliability problems.

The Post-Gazette also reported earier this month on a report by NIOSH:

Nearly one-third of emergency oxygen packs similar to those used at the Sago and Kentucky Darby mines failed inspection in federal tests performed before disaster struck at the two mines.

The problems with the CSE SR-100 model self-contained self-rescuers ranged from torn and stuck hoses, to dented and cracked casings, to damage from moisture, according to a newly released report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

And the state of Kentucky issued a warning about possible heat-related damage on September 5.

So far as I can see, not a peep from MSHA so far on this rather vital coal mine safety matter.