The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has cited one of Gov. Jim Justice’s family companies with safety violations that federal investigators say were the root cause of the February death of a worker at a McDowell County coal preparation plant, according to a new report.
MSHA cited Chestnut Land Holdings with two violations of federal coal-mine safety standards that federal investigators say contributed to the death. The company did not ensure that the worker who died used a fall-protection harness and did not provide a place to tie off such a harness in the area where the miner was working, MSHA investigators said.
Federal officials also cited the company for not promptly reporting the incident to MSHA. Fines for the violations have not yet been assessed.
Jason Kenneth Matthews, 43, of Bluefield, Virginia, died Feb. 27 when he fell while trying to fix part of a “plate press,” which is used to remove water from coal waste at the preparation plant located near Squire.
MSHA records list the prep plant as being part of the “Bishop Impoundment Area,” operated by Chestnut Land Holdings.
At the time of the fatality, MSHA listed the controller of the operation as James C. Justice II — the governor — but the federal agency now lists the controllers as the governor’s son and daughter, James C. Justice III and Dr. Jillean L. Justice. The Governor’s Office has said he is turning over day-to-day control of his companies to his son and daughter.
The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training lists the preparation plant as being operated by another of the family’s companies, Justice Low Seam Mining Inc., and as being named for the governor as the JC “Jim” Justice II Prep Plant.
Starting at about 9 p.m. on Feb. 27, Matthews began trying to fix a broken plate on the coal waste press, a job that involved climbing to the top of the press, which MSHA said is more than 7 feet above the floor of the preparation plant and more than 18 feet above a conveyor belt that collects small particles of coal waste, called fines, that are removed during the press process.
The MSHA report says that, at about 10 p.m., another worker was leaving the area when he saw Matthews climb a ladder to the top of the plate press with a shovel in his hand, but without a safety harness for fall protection. The other worker then “heard a couple of objects fall, and then he heard Matthews calling out for help,” according to the MSHA report.
MSHA investigators reported that the other worker went to the plate press and turned it off with an emergency stop button, then realized that the conveyor belt below — called the filter cake collecting, or FCC, belt — was still operating. The other worker turned off the FCC belt, the report said. He then began searching for Matthews, but couldn’t find him. About five minutes later, Matthews was located inside a transfer chute where the FCC belt transfers coal fines to a second conveyor belt.
“Matthews was sitting upright with refuse material piled up around him to his chest and was unresponsive,” the MSHA report said.
Another worker crawled into the chute and found that Matthews had no pulse. When an ambulance arrived, a local emergency room physician was contacted and advised personnel on the scene not to try to resuscitate Matthews, the MSHA report said.
MSHA investigators determined that a root cause of the death was that the company did not ensure that safety belts and lines were used when there was a danger of falling.
The report said safety harnesses were provided by the company and available for miners to use for fall protection. A safety harness was reported to have been found lying on the plant floor, near the ladder that Matthews used to climb to the top of the plate press.
During a state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety meeting in April, Patrick Graham, senior vice president for safety and health at the Justice family coal operations, said the cause of the death was the worker not using 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.
“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.”
But the MSHA report tells a different story.
“There was no safe means of access on top of the plate press,” the MSHA report said, “and no means of tying off while on top of the plate press was provided,”
MSHA investigators said a second root cause of the death was that, “The mine operator failed to provide a safe means of access to all areas where miners are required to work and travel, as required by 30 CFR 77.205(a). “An effective means was not provided for miners to tie off when working on top of the plate press.”
The MSHA report said that, since the death, the company has installed lines to be used when climbing the ladder or walking on top of the plate press, and a lanyard system in which miners are always tied off overhead, to prevent falling.
MSHA also said the company waited more than 30 minutes to report the fall to federal authorities, a violation of rules that require MSHA to be contacted within 15 minutes.
Officials from the Justice family’s Southern Coal Corp. did not respond to a request for comment on the MSHA report.
When the Governor’s Office was asked for comment on the MSHA report, communications director Butch Antolini said in an email, “All inquiries for comment should be directed to Southern Coal Company and its officials, not the Governor’s [O]ffice.”
The morning after Matthews was killed, the Governor’s Office issued a statement in which Justice said, “My heart is heavy with the sad news out of Squire. Cathy and I ask all West Virginians to join us in praying for the lost coal miner and his family. Tragic accidents like this just break all of our hearts and our state is grateful to have a close-knit mining community that steps up on these most difficult days.”