Saturday, December 16, 2006

Safety Problems Cited In Mine Layoffs of More Than 1,000

Safety hazards, at least in part, were responsible for two recently announced major coal mine layoffs totaling more than 1,000 jobs, one in Alabama and one in Washington State.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Drummond Co. said Monday it would lay off 455 workers from Alabama's largest coal mine, which has been temporarily shut down since October because of continuing problems linked to an underground blast nearly 10 months ago.

Birmingham-based Drummond said it would retain only 81 of the 536 union members who work at the Shoal Creek mine, located in Western Jefferson County. The skeleton work force will maintain the mine, Drummond's last underground operation in the state...

...Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said the layoffs were apparently linked to the accident earlier this year.

"It's a sad day," he said. "We're told this may be something that goes on four to six months. We hope they can work through their problems and get the mine back open."...

Shoal Creek, which employed about 680 people earlier this year, was damaged by a partial roof collapse, explosion and fire on Feb. 24. No one was injured, but production had to be halted because of extensive damage that required repair.

Workers resumed mining in August on a limited basis, but two production units remained idle. The mine was slow to recover because of the extent of the damage and a shortage of equipment, mining division president Mike Tracy said in October...

The Seattle Times:

Few people knew the TransAlta coal mine outside Centralia was shutting before the gates actually closed Monday. But a lot of people saw it coming.

A cascade of forces helped make the closure virtually inevitable, from the age and geology of the mine to changes in state tax law, say mining and energy experts.
It boils down to this: It makes more economic sense to haul trainloads of coal from Wyoming and Montana to fuel Centralia's power plant than it does to dig it out of the plant's backyard....

Compare that with the coal seams in Centralia, one of them known as "The Big Dirty." They are fractured and undulating, close to the surface in places, but plunging deep elsewhere. Much of the coal was dirty and required cleaning. And the mine is 35 years old.

"We were moving more and more dirt and getting less and less coal," said Doug Jackson, president of TransAlta's U.S. operations....

On top of it all, huge sections of a main coal pit fell in last summer and again in early November, burying some of the coal and pushing costs to the breaking point, the company says....

A local blogger comments:

Yes this was a complete shock to everyone but a handful of people. It's kind of somber around town. My husband worked there but was on medical leave and will possibly be retrained. Just not for anything there. We are doing OK but were in the process of making some life changing decision anyway. We really feel for the other people that worked there. Many were totally unprepared and where do you find 600 new jobs in area this size? It sucks for Christmas. We have been through this before when we closed our business and we'll get along fine.

The blogger also quoted a November 28 story from the Centralia Chronicle, which can't easily be accessed online at the paper, but here are a few tidbits:

TransAlta shut down its coal mine northeast of Centralia Monday afternoon, laying off 600 workers, and striking a significant hit to Lewis County's economy....

Jackson cited an increase of $80 million in mining costs in the past year, including high diesel and steel expenses, at the Big Hanaford Valley facility.

He described two major landslides in the mine last year as the "straw that broke the camel's back."...

...Last month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration closed the mine temporarily until a corroded support structure was replaced on the preparation platform.

In August, a blade failed in a turbine at the TransAlta's Steam-Electric plant, shutting down power production of the 700-megawatt unit for 44 days...

Monday, December 11, 2006

State Sago Report Delayed, and More

West Virginia's spokeswoman just advised that the state is delaying release of the Ofice of Miners' Health, Safety and Training report of the January 2 Sago explosion that was previously announced for today,

"in deference to the requests and needs of the family members for additional information about the Sago Mine accident report"...

The state said the report will be available "later," without being more specific.

Meanwhile a bevy of significant mine safety stories have piled up. Here are some of them:

From Pennsylvania:

The state Department of Environmental Protection has filed 23 citations against a Schuylkill County coal company where a miner died in an Oct. 23 blast.

That was an explosives accident at the the R & D Coal Co. Buck Mountain Slope anthracite operation.

Workers descended into the shaft at R&D Coal in Tremont Township yesterday to fix the problems, which have to do with ventilation, said DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun.

The mine cannot be reopened until those problems -- along with at least eight others cited by the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration -- are resolved, Rathbun said.

AP reports on a national review of coal mine accidents.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Coal companies must replace by-the-book compliance with a culture of prevention if they want to eliminate the underground fires and explosions that are killing miners, says a panel of experts releasing recommendations for the industry yesterday.

The Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission has studied 25 years of fires and explosions to produce more than 70 recommendations aimed at eliminating deaths and serious injuries in an industry that has had its worst year in decades.

Complying with state and federal regulations is insufficient because not every risk can be addressed in a rapidly changing environment, said Larry Grayson, commission chairman and a professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
"Unfortunately, it's easy to interpret that if I comply with the minimum requirements of the law, I'm going to be OK," Grayson said. "That's often a bad assumption."

The catch-phrase, "culture of prevention," has some prior history in mine safety. It first seems to have cropped up in an agreement signed by MSHA and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in early 2003. Former Assistant Secretary of MSHA Dave Lauriski started coupling it with his signature phrase, "Safety is a value." For instance:

March 11, 2003

There is a key phrase in the agreement that MSHA recently signed with the NSSGA that says, "We need a culture of prevention."

We need to make safety a value - a central thing, a part of us, deeply held, like our patriotism, like our caring for our families, like the value we put on a day's work for a day's pay.

By the autumn, he was using it in a more general sense, as before the National Safety Council in September 2003:

...two messages that we've been emphasizing at MSHA in the past two years:

· Safety is a value. It is a value to miners and their families, the company's reputation, and the bottom line.
· A culture of prevention. Everyone's actions will reinforce safety when prevention is part of the culture.

It's a good phrase. Just to give credit where it's due.

Ken Ward had a recent piece othat apparently sheds light on a different kind of culture at one mine:

A Massey Energy foreman testified Thursday that company managers told him to not perform pre-shift safety examinations, but to sign records falsely indicating that he had done the checks.

William Edwin Wine described the instructions he had received during a hearing before U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver.

“I was told to do it this way by my supervisors, by my bosses,” Wine said during the hearing in federal court in Charleston.

Wine testified in a hearing on the federal government’s motion to disqualify the law firm Spilman Thomas & Battle from defending Massey subsidiary White Buck Coal Co.... Prosecutors allege that White Buck failed to perform the required pre-shift safety check, and then falsified records to indicate that the check was done.

Now prosecutors say the Spilman firm should not be able to defend White Buck because one of its lawyers, Mark Heath, at one time represented Wine during a civil investigation of the pre-shift examination violation....

Ward also recently had a substantial inteview with new Assistant Secretary for MSHA Richard Stickler. The whole body of the piece seems to me to be balanced and well worth reading.

A few snippets:

If the Sago disaster had occurred a few days earlier, in 2005, it would have made that year’s death count 34, about average for the last decade or so, Stickler said.

“If you move Sago up two days, then in 2005 we have just an average year and 2006 would have been just an average year,” he said.

“Mine safety doesn’t see a calendar,” Stickler said. “It doesn’t know what year it is or what day it is.”....

On Friday, Stickler visited West Virginia to tour a Webster County coal preparation plant operated by Brooks Run Mining.

In a news release, MSHA noted that the facility won a prestigious Sentinels of Safety Award in 2005 for having no reportable accidents during its employees’ 122,000 hours worked that year.

But in 2004, two Brooks Run miners were killed in a five-week period, one at the preparation plant Stickler visited and another at a nearby underground mine. MSHA cited the company in both deaths, and Brooks Run paid a total of $66,000 in fines.

“They had those two fatalities, and they made a commitment that they were going to do something drastically different,” Stickler said during a Friday afternoon visit to the Gazette-Mail newsroom. “Obviously, this company has made a commitment to safety. That’s the way they’re running their business.”...

Stickler, 62, grew up in Barrackville, just northwest of Fairmont. His father was a miner, and he watched his grandfather die of black lung...

Stickler promised that his agency would begin to take stronger enforcement action against that “very small percentage” of renegade operators.

“The big picture is that the biggest problem is a lack of compliance with the laws we have on the books,” Stickler says...

Tax breaks for mine safety and health:

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., said legislation passed by the House on Friday afternoon contained key provisions for improving coal mine safety, cleaning up abandoned mines and providing health benefits for miners whose companies have gone out of business.

He explained that HR 6111 contained a great many last minute unrelated legislative initiatives, but few were as important to the Mountain State as the provisions that affect the coal mining industry...

Mollohan said the bill included tax incentives that will allow mine operators to expense 50 percent of the cost of qualified mine safety equipment that is put in service within three years of enactment of the legislation and a three-year training tax credit related to mine rescue training team programs.

“These provisions will encourage mine operators to take the steps necessary to improve mine safety," Mollohan said. “It should lead to significant improvements in a timely manner that can help save the lives of America’s coal miners."

A third important component of the bill is the reauthorization of current law that allows interest from the Abandoned Mine Land trust fund to be diverted to three plans that provide health benefits for coal miners whose companies have gone out of business. It also provides mandatory payments from the US Treasury to the benefit plans when needed....

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Top Story: WV Reportedly Finds Sago Cause Was Lightning

The AP talked to the UMWA and others who had an inside track, according to this story:

Associated Press Writer
FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) -- State investigators have determined that a lightning strike sparked the methane gas explosion deep inside the Sago Mine, where 12 coal miners died in January, a union official said.

Lightning had been suspected from the beginning, and a nearly yearlong state investigation ruled out other potential causes for the explosion, said Dennis O'Dell, the labor union's health and safety coordinator....

This has scooped those of us who are awaiting the report's official release on Monday. I hope the early released information is not a surprise to the families.

Special note: today marks the 14th anniversary of the Southmountain mine explosion, in which 8 were killed, near Norton, Va., December 7, 1992. This milestone hits with a pang every year. I was one of the MSHA crew that spent 6 days at the mine during the attempted rescue. Mike Abbott, of the Va. DMME, and I drove up and down a mountain several times a day between the command center (an old trailer with balky heating)and the foot of the mine road, where families and friends of the missing miners waited in tents and busses supplied by the Red Cross, in bitter cold and often in snow, for word on the rescue effort's progress. There, with other officials and engineers when possible, we'd brief the families and then the media who waited with them, standing in the mud beside the railroad tracks. As hope faded, so did the media interest; while rescue teams were still searching, amid setbacks from hazardous gases, the U.S. entered Somalia, pushing the mine accident off the front page; and in the end, there were the eight fatalities, and the heartbreak for their families, and a fresh grief for each of us to carry home that Christmas season. It was a baptism of sorts into the true and very personal meaning of our mine safety mission. Afterwards, there were investigations, ending in both fines and jail sentences for those responsible, and a fund was established with those fines for the education of the children who lost their fathers; no true recompense, but some measure of justice. You could write a book about it all.
But the emotions always come back at this time of year, when bare twigs blur the tree-covered hillsides, almost like smoke, bringing back that thin smoke rising from the mine mouth, and the winter is setting in. The winter is the time when most of the explosions happen.

I pray that underground coal miners everywhere are closely watching their four basic lines of defense against similar explosions: following the ventilation plan; careful preshift and onshift exams; control of ignition sources -- and definitely, no smoking; and finally, thorough rock dusting. May everyone come safely through this hazardous winter period and may the holidays be good days for all.

Friday, December 01, 2006

State Report Out On Darby

From AP:

Probe: Safety Lapse Killed Ky. Miners

The Associated Press
Friday, December 1, 2006; 11:16 AM

PIKEVILLE, Ky. -- Safety violations including use of an open-flame torch near a leaky methane seal sparked a deadly underground explosion at an eastern Kentucky mine in May, authorities said Friday.

The protective seal was "poorly constructed" and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to a report from the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing...

The torch ignited the leaking methane as two of the victims were repairing metal straps that intersected the top of the seal and were used as underground roof supports, the report said.

"In this case, what was done was clearly against regulations," said Susan Bush, commissioner of the state Department for Natural Resources...

Tony Oppegard, an attorney representing four of the victims' families, said the miners' widows still had unanswered questions about who ordered Brock and Lee to repair the straps.

"It didn't bring any peace at all. I think it was very difficult for all of them," Oppegard said Friday. "There was anger and sadness."...

According to witness testimony, Brock had said they had to make repairs to the area before a federal inspector from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration returned to the site two days later.

MSHA, which is conducting its own investigation into the blast, declined to let state investigators interview the inspector.

A lawyer for Ralph Napier, an owner of mine operator Kentucky Darby LLC, called the state's report incomplete.

"We disagree with many aspects of the report. But I don't want to get into specifics right now," attorney Kent Hendrickson said. "There's a more complete MSHA federal report to follow."...