Alpha cited for not evacuating mine when belt burned
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A year after its buyout of Massey Energy, Alpha Natural Resources has been cited for more than 200 safety violations in a massive federal inspection sweep launched after the company did not evacuate a Wyoming County underground mine when workers encountered thick smoke from a burned conveyor belt.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials accused Alpha of an "unwarrantable failure" to follow federal safety rules in an incident reminiscent of the January 2006 fire that killed two miners at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.
On Thursday, MSHA released inspection documents regarding the belt incident two weeks ago at Alpha's Road Fork 51 Mine and provided general figures on the results of its broader May 23 inspection blitz at dozens of former Massey operations Alpha now owns in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.
At Road Fork, investigators found inoperable smoke detectors and fire suppression systems, inadequate conveyor belt maintenance, and multiple accumulations of explosive coal dust as deep as 18 inches, according to the MSHA inspection records.
MSHA inspectors alleged that mine managers who performed company safety checks often did not report obvious safety hazards in required record books and did not correct dangerous conditions that they did list in those books.
"The conditions were similar to Aracoma and we should be alarmed about this whether Aracoma occurred or not," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator. "We had smoke that was visible to the naked eye and production was continuing."
At Aracoma, investigators blamed the deaths of miners Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg at least in part on mine management's failure to immediately evacuate when a conveyor belt caught fire. The failure to evacuate was among the criminal charges to which Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty in a 2008 deal with prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office takes "reports such as the one from Road Fork 51 very seriously" and intends "to closely review the documents that MSHA released today" for potential criminal violations.
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the MSHA enforcement actions, but the company had previously downplayed the matter in a report to investors, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Alpha has been under increasing scrutiny following its June 1, 2011, purchase of Massey Energy after the April 2010 deaths of 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.
The inspection sweep and the Road Fork incident are the latest in a series of events that have raised questions about Alpha's promotion of its "Running Right" safety program as the cure for repeated violations and deaths that plagued Massey's Appalachian operations.
"Admittedly, some operations don't progress as quickly as others," Pile, the Alpha spokesman, had said in an e-mail message Wednesday evening. "We had 65 operations go the full year last year without a reportable injury and we had some operations that didn't do well. So there's work to do."
Overall, MSHA said the May 23 inspection sweep produced 226 violations, a number agency officials said was not especially large, given that more than 100 inspectors visited 43 mines that day.
"That's not a lot compared to what could have been in place, and it was nothing like we found at Road Fork," Stricklin said.
Still, independent mine safety experts were shocked at what MSHA inspectors reported they found at the Road Fork operation.
"It shows you that the mid-level and upper-level management of the mining companies in this country have not internalized Aracoma, have not internalized Upper Big Branch, and have not internalized the lessons they should have learned," said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration.
Road Fork 51 is a relatively small mine that produced about 360,000 tons of coal with 108 employees last year, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.
Spartan Mining, a former Massey and current Alpha subsidiary, operates Road Fork 51. Records at the Secretary of State's office list Spartan's president as Charles Bearse, who led a Massey subsidiary that ran Freedom Energy, a Massey operation whose safety performance was so bad that MSHA sought a court order to shut it down.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on May 18, MSHA inspectors arrived at the mine near Pineville, expecting to continue work on a regular, quarterly inspection of the underground operation.
Instead, "it was determined that management was attempting to locate the source of thick smoke that miners had encountered" in a tunnel just outside a working section of the mine," inspectors reported. MSHA ordered the mine evacuated, except for a foreman whose job it was to find the source of the smoke, and cited the company for not evacuating the operation itself.
No one was injured in the incident, but MSHA inspectors wrote in an order that, "The operator has engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence because thick smoke was verified, the source of the smoke was not known, miners were underground and the extent of the source of the smoke could not be determined to allow miners to remain underground safely."
MSHA officials said the smoke was traced to what they have called a "burned belt" that is still under investigation. Alpha said in its SEC filing that,
"A slipping conveyor belt was promptly identified as the source [of the smoke] and repaired." Alpha added that, "No fire was discovered, and all air reading indicated that no fire or combustion had occurred in the mine."
MSHA inspectors, though, issued a dozen enforcement orders and citations found at Road Fork 51, including:
Under an agreement that avoided corporate criminal charges from Upper Big Branch, Alpha was required to have implemented a plan to ensure that each of its underground mines "has the personnel and resources necessary to meet all legal requirements relating to incombustible material and to prevent accumulations of coal dust and loose coal."
"I'm disturbed that when we got to the mine and they knew that they had smoke that we had to order the operator to remove the people from the mine," Stricklin said Thursday. "When I looked at the conditions that we found, it disturbed me even more."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.