Last night two miners died in the collapse of a West Virginia coal mine, one that already had a serious history of safety violations. Gary Hensley and Eric Legg were working in the mine, owned by Patriot Coal Corporation, when the collapse occurred just before 9 pm Monday night.
Last October the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) added Patriot Coal to its list of companies who have a “pattern of violations”. This is pretty much the last straw for the company before the administration can ask for them to be shut down. An inspection of the site found just over 250 significant and substantial violations and they received numerous citations from MSHA. Last year they were fined $3.2 million for all of their citations.
Only three mines (including this one) have been cited as having a “pattern of violations”. The Brody No. 1 mine near Wharton, WV, has been operating since 2006. The mine’s owner has challenged this status and a hearing is scheduled for May 22. This tragedy may not do much for their argument.
The mine has also been the subject of “impact investigations”, started after the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy in 2010 when 29 workers were killed. These investigations are surprise investigations that take place during working hours so that inspectors can really get a good picture of what goes on at the mine. The industry also calls them blitz investigations, and inspectors try to catch any deficiencies that the mine might otherwise be hiding.
The mine’s owners argued that they acquired the company in December of 2012 and that most of these safety violations took place before that time. They also say they have since tried to make the mine a safer place, and have replaced managers and key officers who were there before the purchase.
Mine safety advocate Celeste Monforton said that this specific mine had a much higher injury rate (35 injuries last year) compared to the national average (just under 17 injuries last year).
The miners working last night were working during retreat mining operations. This is when workers are trying to get the last bit of coal out of an area, which they do by collapsing the coal pillars that are holding up the roof as they retreat backwards. It’s sort of like they are trying to get the roof to cave in so they can collect the coal it might contain.
A mine safety prosecutor, Tony Oppegard, said that this practice was extremely hazardous even in good conditions. He said that a mine that has been cited for repeat violations, is under blitz style investigations and is using this dangerous practice of retreat mining is a “red flag” for anyone working as a miner.