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Ky. mining deaths bring more calls for reform

Follow mine safety on the Coal Tattoo blog

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mine safety advocates on Thursday renewed their calls for tougher enforcement in the wake of a major roof fall that killed two coal miners at an Alliance Resource Partners operation in western Kentucky.

The deaths at the Dotiki Mine near Nebo in Hopkins County stunned the coalfields, coming just 24 days after the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years, an April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Justin Travis of Dixon, Ky., was 27. Michael Carter of Hanson, Ky., was 28.

"Once again, two miners are dead, and we're waiting to see what exactly happened to cause it," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.

Smith noted that state and federal records indicated the Dotiki Mine had a history of safety problems, including some of the most serious citations inspectors can issue.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records showed more than 850 citations and enforcement orders issued to the Dotiki Mine since January 2009.

During the mine's most recent complete inspection, which ended March 31, the MSHA inspectors cited at least 10 violations of federal roof-control standards, among other things.

"Safety in a coal mine is the responsibility of the operator, first and foremost," Smith said. "It's become abundantly clear recently that some coal operators aren't going to follow current law, no matter what the level of enforcement is.

"That means we must develop tougher laws, with tougher penalties that include criminal actions that can be taken against upper corporate management, if appropriate," Smith said.

UMW officials have been harshly criticizing Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship, in the weeks since the Upper Big Branch explosion. And on Thursday, union President Cecil Roberts renewed his call that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration -- led by former union safety director Joe Main -- hold its investigation of Upper Big Branch through a public hearing.

"The families and the public have a right to know what happened, who is responsible and what is going to be done," Roberts said. "The only way that can be accomplished fully is for the investigation to be open and for all parties to be full participants in all aspects of the process."

Main has not yet responded to the UMW or to separate requests for a public hearing from two of the Upper Big Branch widows and from a coalition of media groups, including The Charleston Gazette.

The Dotiki deaths reminded many mine safety advocates of 2006, when 12 miners died in a Jan. 2 explosion at International Coal Group's Sago Mine and 17 days later 2 workers were killed in a fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

The trend of major mining accidents sometimes seeming to come in bunches goes back a century, to when 239 miners died in the Darr Disaster in Pennsylvania on Dec. 19, 1907, just two weeks after the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in history, when 362 were killed at Monongah in Marion County.

But longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer said the timing of major accidents appears to be more of a trend than it is because huge disasters make the public pay attention -- for a short while at least -- to the smaller accidents that claim fewer lives.

"Historically, there tends to be a noticeable secondary or tertiary accident, but what this accident in Kentucky is really showing us is miners dying in ones or twos," McAteer said. "They wouldn't be noticed except that we've had a disaster. The problem is that we so often have these accidents without public attention and without remedy."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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