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Massey mine receives 11 'closure orders'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors last week issued nearly a dozen serious enforcement orders after finding major ventilation and roof control violations at a Massey Energy mine in Boone County.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors issued 11 "closure orders" during a Sept. 28 review at Massey subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.'s Seng Creek Powellton Mine.

MSHA chief Joe Main issued a news release to announce the enforcement actions, but his agency did not immediately make public copies of the orders issued to Elk Run.

In the news release, MSHA said its inspectors discovered illegal extended cuts into coal. MSHA said extended cuts -- those longer than those typically allowed by safety rules -- can boost productivity, but also increase coal dust accumulations that can contribute to explosions.

In addition, MSHA inspectors found that many areas of the same mining section were "without adequate ventilation while these excessive cuts were being taken, exposing miners to the risk of explosions and black lung."

MSHA also said the mine foreman admitted he had not been taking air monitor readings during the shift. The foreman also allowed ventilation curtains to be rolled up against the mine roof, short-circuiting air flow, so that mining equipment could be more easily accessed.

"In one particular area, suspended coal dust was so thick it was difficult to determine the proximity of the massive continuous mining machine," MSHA said in its news release.

Massey's safety practices have been under increasing scrutiny since April 5, when an explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County killed 29 workers. It was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

The Seng Creek Mine is a much smaller operation, employing about 90 workers and producing 260,000 tons of coal in 2009. The mine's injury rate so far in 2010 has been nearly three times worse than the national average, MSHA data show.

In a prepared statement, Massey acknowledged problems at the mine and said "this situation was very frustrating and totally unacceptable."

"The president of the company had just had a meeting with all his superintendents the day before this incident in which he again covered the fact that the company expects its miners to mine coal in accordance with the law," Massey said through its public relations firm. "The foreman in charge of the section was told the same thing by his superintendent right before he went underground the day of the violations.

"This training was simply violated," Massey said. "We will redouble our efforts."

Massey said the foreman and two hourly workers were fired. Nine other miners were suspended for three days. Massey said company officials "appreciate MSHA's blitz for uncovering conduct that we did not uncover ourselves. We welcome any effort -- whether by MSHA, the state or Massey -- that uncovers such conduct."

Also Thursday, Massey continued its criticism of MSHA's Upper Big Branch investigation, alleging the federal agency wrongly blocked one of the company's experts from going underground at the mine.

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


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