One of Gov. Jim Justice’s family mining operations has been cited by West Virginia inspectors for six safety violations — including one that will draw a “special assessment” penalty — in the investigation of the February death of a worker at a McDowell County coal preparation plant, according to a report made public Monday.
Justice Low Seam Mining Inc. was cited by the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training for the violations discovered at the JC “Jim” Justice II Prep Plant, named for the governor, by agency inspectors looking into the Feb. 27 death of Jason Kenneth Matthews, according to the report presented to the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety during the board’s regular monthly meeting.
Matthews, 43, of Bluefield, Virginia, was killed when he fell onto a conveyor belt and then into a coal-waste bin after climbing a ladder to repair a plate filter press used to dewater coal waste inside the preparation plant. Matthews had been working at the plant for about three months.
According to the state’s report, the incident occurred at about 10 p.m. Matthews had reported to the preparation plant control operator and foreman that the plate press was not working properly. A mechanic was sent to help Matthews with the repairs. The two men found that a plate was broken and that fixing it would require moving several other plates. The report says Matthews said he could complete the work alone, and that the mechanic should return to his other duties.
The mechanic, Ralph Sparks, told investigators that he was gathering his tools to leave the area and saw Matthews climbing a 10-foot extension ladder to gain access to the top of the plate press. Sparks told investigators that Matthews was not wearing his fall-protection safety harness at the time. The report said Matthews also had called the control room to have the conveyor belts in the area restarted.
“Mr. Sparks was walking down the steps when he heard a shovel fall and Mr. Matthews scream for help,” the report says. Sparks said he then ran to one control panel to hit the stop switch for the press and then went down one level to stop the waste conveyor belt, located under the press.
Sparks and control room operator/foreman Jeff Music then discovered that Matthews had fallen 18 feet from the top of the filter press onto the conveyor belt below, traveled 55 feet on that belt and then fallen another 10 feet onto a refuse-collection belt. He was found lodged in the bin located on that refuse-collection belt, the report said.
“That’s where they found him,” Ben Hamilton, a state district mine safety inspector, told board members Monday. “He was in a bin. Coal had come down and covered him, approximately neck height.”
Inspectors issued five notices of violation. Two of them concerned failing to implement a comprehensive mine safety program by not providing training records for Matthews and Sparks. Two others said the operator had failed to ensure that employees wear safety harnesses and that all ladders be properly secured. A fifth notice said the operator did not report to the state, in writing and within 24 hours, the full details of the accident.
Investigators also issued a “special assessed notice of violation” that said the mine operator had failed to ensure compliance with a rule that repairs and maintenance not be performed on equipment until the power is off and the equipment is blocked against motion. The report said that, in this instance, the power was on to the filter press and the conveyor belt was in operation at the time of the fatality.
Normally, state mine safety violations carry a maximum penalty of $5,000. In cases involving miner deaths, imminent danger or a high degree of negligence, the state can levy a special assessment of up to $10,000. State officials said they did not believe the exact penalties assessed for the violations in this instance had been set as of Monday’s meeting.
At the time of the incident, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration listed Jim Justice as the controller of the mine. As of March 7, MSHA has the controllers listed as Jill Justice, the governor’s daughter, and Jay Justice, the governor’s son. Jim Justice and his office have said the governor was handing over day-to-day control of his coal holdings to his son, and his hospitality businesses, including The Greenbrier resort, to his daughter.
Patrick Graham, senior vice president for health and safety at the Justice family coal operations, attended Monday’s board meeting. He told board members that the conveyor belts needed to be running for Matthews to fix the press because, otherwise, coal refuse would get stacked up and it would be impossible to move the other plates to reach the one that needed repaired.
Graham said the real goal of investigations into mining injuries and deaths should be to figure out what really happened, so that lessons can be learned that would prevent such incidents in the future. In this instance, Graham said, the real cause of the death was the failure to use a fall-protection harness.
“What he failed to do was to use fall protection,” Graham said. “Matthews should have had his, and he was trained to do that.”
Graham said an MSHA inspector on the scene told state and company officials that he had seen Matthews wearing a safety harness during a mine inspection just a week or so earlier.
“The real question is what goes through a person’s mind in human behavior when he’s working by himself and nobody’s watching,” Graham said. “It’s like a coal miner mentality, you know. ‘I can do this and maybe I don’t need to do a particular safety precaution.’ When we can cure that kind of problem, it wouldn’t happen here. He had been wearing his harness before. He had been trained to wear it. It’s not like the employees weren’t trained.”
Also Monday, coal board members heard a report on the death of a miner at a coal loadout in Logan County.
Franklin Vannoy Jr., 54, of Delbarton, died Feb. 10, a week after he was hurt when his coal truck overturned while he was dumping a load of coal at the Greenbrier Minerals Elk Lick Loadout, near Lorado, in the Buffalo Creek area of Logan County. Coronado Coal is the parent company of Greenbrier Minerals.
State officials issued no notices of violation related to the incident. Their report said no safety defects were found related to the truck.
The fatal incident occurred on Vannoy’s third day on the job for the trucking firm Stacy Equipment and Repairs Inc., according to the report.
On his second day on the job, part of a lift jack on a different truck broke when Vannoy was dumping coal, causing the trailer to overturn. Vannoy was not injured in that incident.
On the third day, shortly after 6:30 a.m., Vannoy had to try several times to position his truck in a straight line, to dump his load of coal, the report said. When he lined up and started raising the trailer, he was seen getting out of the truck cab, walking to the back of the trailer and looking around. When he got back in and resumed raising the trailer, the trailer bed started to weave from side to side, according to another driver who witnessed the incident.
The witness said Vannoy opened the operator’s door and jumped out of the truck and onto the concrete pad of the dumping area as the truck overturned in the opposite direction.
Vannoy was seen sitting on the concrete pad after the truck overturned. He was conscious and answering questions. He was transported to Charleston Area Medical Center. The report said he died Feb. 10 from “complications.” The report did not provide more details, but state officials said it was believed that Vannoy had a broken leg and died from complications related to that injury.
The report repeatedly noted that Vannoy was not seen to have de-iced the bed of his trailer, despite freezing temperatures the morning of the incident. The report does not specify, but state inspector-at-large John Kinder said some material in the bed of the truck could have frozen and gotten stuck to the bed, making the trailer unstable when it was being raised for unloading.
State officials said the company has added a digital thermometer at its scale house, and instructed all truck drivers to treat their trailer beds with de-icer for every load of coal when the temperature is below 32 degrees.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.