Two miners were killed Monday night in Boone County while performing an especially dangerous type of coal removal, at a Patriot Coal operation where federal officials said last year they would increase enforcement because of a pattern of serious violations and unreported worker injuries.
Continuous mining machine operators Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight, and roof bolter Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, were killed while working at Patriot’s Brody Mine No. 1 near Wharton, state and federal officials confirmed. No other injuries were reported and all other miners were accounted for, officials said Tuesday.
The miners were performing “retreat mining” — in which workers back out of the mine, removing coal pillars that were left to hold up the roof — when pressures from the ground above the mine caused a sudden release of coal and rock material from the mine roof or wall, according to preliminary accounts from federal and state regulators and the company. The incident occurred around 8:30 p.m., according to Chelsea Ruby, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.
A Patriot Coal official called the state’s industrial accident hot line at 8:47 p.m. Monday to report that two miners were entrapped at the operation, said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The initial report “indicated a rock fall,” Messina said, and that workers on the surface “had communicated with the miners” underground.
“Rescue efforts later determined that the miners did not survive, and the miners’ bodies have been recovered,” said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
A prepared statement from MSHA referred to the incident as a “ground failure,” while the state mine safety office’s initial report called it a “coal outburst.”
Both descriptions suggest the incident was not simply a roof or rock fall. An outburst, or a “bump,” is a sudden release of the roof, wall or even floor rock into an open area of the mine. Outbursts are different from roof falls. A roof fall is just what it sounds like: pieces of roof rock come apart and fall. Outbursts occur because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down.
In a statement later Tuesday morning, Patriot Coal spokeswoman Janine Orf said the incident was “a severe coal burst as the mine was conducting retreat mining operations.”
Various studies have found that coal outbursts or bumps can be especially hard to prevent. But, the studies over many years have also shown, they are not natural occurrences and can be avoided or the risk reduced with proper mine planning and compliance with that planning.
“Inadequate mine planning or incorrect design can increase the occurrence of bumps in underground coal mines,” says one 1991 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.
Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said that retreat mining or “pulling pillars” is “the most dangerous type of mining.”
“Compliance with the pillar removal plan is essential,” Oppegard said. “The plan must be followed religiously because even the slightest deviation can have devastating consequences. In almost every retreat mining fatality that I’m aware of, failure to comply with the pillar plan was the cause of the accident.”
The Brody deaths are the first coal-mining fatalities in West Virginia since one in mid-January. So far this year, five coal miners have died on the job nationwide, and the two at Brody make three deaths in 2014 in West Virginia, according to MSHA.
Political leaders around the state took time away from Tuesday’s Election Day activities to issue a stream of news releases expressing sympathy for the families. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged all West Virginians “to continue praying for them during this very difficult time for our mining community.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in his own statement, “We know that mining deaths and injuries are preventable, and last night’s tragedy is particularly troubling given the operator’s history of safety violations.
“Every step must be taken to make sure this operator — and all operators for that matter — are held accountable for the safety and health of their miners,” Rockfeller said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a Senate floor speech that the deaths should remind the nation of the importance of finding ways to mine coal more safely. “The loss of even one miner’s life is one too many,” said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster.
Brody Mine No. 1 is a nonunion operation that’s part of Patriot’s Wells Complex. Last year, Brody produced nearly 1 million tons of coal with roughly 300 workers, according to federal data.
In October 2013, federal officials cited the operation for a “pattern of violations,” or POV, as part of a stepped-up enforcement program the Obama administration began following the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010. Once a POV order has been issued for a mine, any additional serious violations can prompt MSHA to halt operations in that part of the mine under the violation has been fixed.
MSHA said that its inspectors had cited more than 250 “significant and substantial” violations during the 12-month period that ended Aug. 31. Federal officials listed nine violations between October 2012 and July 2013 that MSHA inspectors said created hazards related to the mine roof and wall stability.
In a prepared statement at the time of MSHA’s action, St. Louis-based Patriot Coal said it had acquired Brody effective Dec. 31, 2012, and that many of the violations cited by MSHA occurred prior to that time. Patriot said it had made major safety improvements at the operation.
Patriot’s 2013 annual report, released in late March, said that all former officers and “key mine-level managers” at Brody were replaced after Patriot bought the operation. Violation rates have improved, the company said, and Patriot continues to “vigorously” appeal the POV designation by MSHA.
Louivere said that the POV designation remains in effect and that MSHA has issued 69 withdrawal orders to the Brody operation under that designation.
During a regular quarterly inspection that began on April 1, MSHA inspectors have so far issued six enforcement orders for violations of federal regulations related to roof control, according to agency data published online. Last June, an MSHA “impact inspection” aimed at problem mines found 11 violations at Brody, with inspectors listing eight of them as “significant and substantial.” Then in December, a similar MSHA inspection at the mine found just two violations, with neither listed as serious.
Last year, there were at least eight accidents at Brody that were classified by MSHA as a “fall or roof or back,” agency online records show. In two of those instances, Brody indicated it filed the accident report with MSHA “under protest,” so that MSHA would abate a violation for note reporting the incident, and that the company reserved its right to appeal the violation for not reporting.
When it issued its POV order to the Brody operation, MSHA said that an agency audit of the mine’s records found that injuries resulted in nearly 1,800 lost-work days at the mine, 367 of which were from eight injuries that the company did not report to MSHA. A separate audit in 2012 found 29 injuries that were not reported.
Coal industry officials have vigorously opposed MSHA’s efforts to toughen its pattern of violations process, with some companies, including Murray Energy, challenging the agency’s final rule in court. During a public hearing in Charleston in June 2011, West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton also questioned the rule, given what he called “the increase in questionable citations issued by [MSHA] inspectors.”
On Tuesday, Robert Rash, chief of the Wharton-Barrett Volunteer Fire Department, told The Associated Press that Legg — one of the two miners killed at Brody — became a coal miner after he graduated from high school.
“That’s all that’s around here, actually. Deep mine and strip mine,” Rash said.
Both men liked to hunt and fish, and Hensley was always working on an old car in his garage, said his son.
“I always tell people he had a happy-go-lucky attitude,” Caleb Hensley told the AP. “He took the good with the bad. He understood that bad things happened, but when they did, he’d keep his chin up, that no matter what, things would be OK.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.