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Massey miner dies of injuries from May 10 incident

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Another Massey Energy coal miner died Friday morning after being hurt last week in a Mingo County mine that was among those targeted in an inspection blitz following the April 5 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

James Robie Erwin, 55, of Delbarton, had been hospitalized since May 10, when he was caught between a shuttle car and the mine wall at Massey subsidiary Spartan Energy's Ruby Energy Mine near Delbarton, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Erwin is the 36th coal miner to die on the job nationwide this year and the 31st in West Virginia, making the worst year for the state's mining industry since 1980, when 34 coal miners were killed.

The death comes as Massey faces criminal and civil investigations of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years, the massive explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Federal prosecutors in Charleston have confirmed that they are investigating potential criminal violations at Upper Big Branch, and are looking into more than 400 civil citations and orders issued by MSHA at the mine over the past 4 years.

Investigators have not been able to re-enter the Upper Big Branch Mine to gather any physical evidence. They are concerned about air readings that might indicate underground fires, and about the possibility of secondary explosions.

The Obama administration is under increasing criticism for its refusal to conduct the disaster investigation through a public hearing, and instead continuing its practice of closed-door witness interviews.

During a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Thursday, Massey CEO Don Blankenship and United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts complained about the closed-door investigation. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he was going to look into the matter.

Later Thursday, however, U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger threw out a lawsuit filed by the UMW and the families of two disaster victims seeking to force MSHA to conduct a more public investigation.

Berger did not rule on the merits of the case, instead deciding that federal law did not give her jurisdiction to hear a challenge of how MSHA was conducting an accident investigation.

Government investigators and mine safety experts say the April 5 explosion likely involved an ignition of methane gas that was made far worse by a buildup of explosive coal dust. MSHA inspectors had cited the company for repeated ventilation violations and coal-dust accumulations, but Massey has tried to point the finger back at MSHA, saying agency-ordered airflow changes made the mine less safe.

MSHA chief Joe Main fired back at those accusations during the Senate hearing Thursday in Washington.

"MSHA did not run the Upper Big Branch Mine," Main said. "Massey did. They were the ones who operated the mine, and there is no doubt in my mind that conditions in that mine were not good."

During that hearing, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., complained to Main that MSHA did not launch an inspection sweep of mines with a history of serious safety problems until after the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Byrd pressed Main several times for answers about why the agency waited until after the deaths, until Main finally responded, "The only thing I can say is that the agency didn't do it. That's something we'll look at and try to figure out what we did or didn't do."

"We have shortcomings," Main said.

Massey's Ruby Energy Mine was among 57 coal mines in 10 states targeted in that MSHA inspection blitz, which focused on mines with repeated violations of ventilation and coal-dust standards.

During the later April inspection blitz, MSHA issued 29 citations and four more serious enforcement orders at Ruby Energy. Twelve of the 33 enforcement actions were considered serious and substantial by MSHA inspectors.

During Thursday's Senate hearing, Blankenship strongly disputed any suggestion that Massey has a poor record or puts profits before safety practices.

"No coal company can succeed over the long term without a total commitment to safety and a significant investment in necessary training, equipment and personnel," Blankenship told lawmakers. "We strive to remain an industry leader in safety by developing new technologies and employing effective training programs to reduce accidents and improve safety for all of the hard-working men and women of Massey Energy."

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


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