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W.Va. still struggling with coal-mine safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia led the nation in 2012 with seven coal-mining deaths, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The fatality count for 2012 was one more than the six West Virginia miners who died on the job in 2011.

Nationwide, 19 coal miners were killed in on-the-job accidents last year, down slightly from 21 coal-mining fatalities in 2011. The nation also recorded 17 metal and nonmetal mining deaths in 2012, up from 16 the previous year, according to MSHA data.

Across all types of mining, the industry's total fatality count in 2012 was 36, down from 37 in 2011, and half of the 71 who died in 2010, when 29 coal miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Alpha Natural Resources accounted for three of West Virginia's mining deaths last year, and CONSOL Energy accounted for two. The other deaths occurred at mines owned by Coal River Mining LLC and Arch Coal.

Kentucky had the second most coal-mining deaths last year, with four. Alabama had two, and Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia had one each.

West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining fatalities in five of the last dozen years. Kentucky led the nation six times during that period, and Utah led once, in 2007, when nine workers died in the disaster at Murray Energy's Crandall Canyon Mine.

In West Virginia, the criminal investigation continues into the explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine.

Last month, a former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent was sentenced to nearly two years in jail for his role in a plot to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards at the Raleigh County operation where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Gary May to 21 months in prison, three years of probation and a $20,000 fine for one felony count of conspiracy to thwart the federal government's mine safety efforts.

Berger said the sentence should deter anyone in the coal industry from "putting business interests and mining coal and making money ahead of safety."

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office was pleased with the sentence, and warned that prosecutors in Southern West Virginia will not tolerate criminal violations of mine safety laws.

"If you put profits and production ahead of mine safety, you will go to jail," Goodwin said. Goodwin said his office's probe is continuing into a "significant conspiracy" to violate mine safety laws at Massey operations, but declined to say yet if prosecutors believe criminal actions extended into Massey's executive suite or corporate boardroom.

"We are going to take our investigation where it goes," Goodwin said. "But at this point, I'm not willing to specify how far that conspiracy went at Massey Energy."

In the Upper Big Branch probe, May is the third person that Berger has so far sent to jail.

A former UBB miner, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.

The judge sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: Making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.

And next up in the investigation is a former longtime Massey official, David C. Hughart, who is scheduled to enter a guilty plea in late February to two criminal charges, including taking part in a decade-long scheme involving advance notice of MSHA inspections at various Massey mines. Hughart is also cooperating with investigators.

Meanwhile, MSHA is moving forward with some of the more significant regulatory improvements that have been held up during President Obama's first term.

Under a rule finalized in January, coal operators whose mines repeatedly violate safety and health standards could more easily be hit with tougher enforcement actions.

U.S. Department of Labor officials released the final version of their long-awaited updated rules aimed at reforming the controversial "pattern of violations," or "POV," program at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The rules stop mine operators from using appeals of safety citations to avoid tougher enforcement and do away with MSHA warning letters that give companies additional time to improve before facing tougher enforcement.

"We think that this final rule will help prevent another tragedy such as occurred at the Upper Big Branch Mine," said MSHA chief Joe Main.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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