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Burned belt leads to Alpha inspection blitz

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors this week launched a major inspection blitz at dozens of Alpha Natural Resources mines after citing a burned conveyor belt at an Alpha operation in Wyoming County as an "imminent danger."

The inspections, which targeted 43 mines in three states, are likely the largest such effort aimed at a single company, and focused on former Massey Energy Co. mines that Alpha acquired when it bought Massey a year ago.

More than 100 inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration descended on Alpha operations in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky on Wednesday, five days after a May 18 incident involving a "burned belt" at the company's Road Fork No. 51 Mine near Pineville.

Violations were found during what MSHA calls "impact inspections," but neither the agency nor Alpha would say how many enforcement citations and orders were issued.

The inspection sweep is the latest in a series of episodes that have raised questions about Alpha's promotion of its "Running Right" safety program as the cure for repeated violations and deaths that plagued Massey's Appalachian operations.

"It's very troubling that there continue to be these problems," said longtime mine safety expert Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration.

Ted Pile, a news media spokesman for Alpha, confirmed that there was a "wave of inspections" at his company's operations, but downplayed the Road Fork incident. Pile said it "was not a life-threatening situation" and that the company acted "expeditiously and professionally" in responding.

Over the past year, Alpha has been under increasing scrutiny following its purchase of Massey after the April 2010 deaths of 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.

Just two days before the Road Fork conveyor belt incident, Alpha had issued its first-ever corporate sustainability report to tout what it said are its improvements at former Massey operations since taking them over. Alpha said it has spent tens of thousands of hours on advanced safety training of former Massey employees, and has seen improved safety performance as a result.

"We are keenly aware of the very real safety risks in our industry and the perception by many that coal mining is a dangerous occupation," Alpha said in its report. "We are working hard to change those perceptions by demonstrating improvements in our health and safety performance."

West Virginia political leaders have been eager to praise Alpha as an example of a good corporate citizen in the coal industry, offering the company as a contrast to Massey Energy and its outspoken chief executive officer, Don Blankenship.

In the past two weeks, however:

| The operators of an Alpha contract mine in Virginia were issued six enforcement orders that cited for their "unwarrantable failure" to comply with federal safety rules in the death of a surface mine worker.

| An Alpha subsidiary and five foremen were cited for safety violations in the investigation of the death of a miner at one of the company's Kingston underground mines in Fayette County.

| A longtime employee died in a three-story fall from an Alpha preparation plant in Boone County, the second of two Alpha fatalities -- the only two West Virginia mining deaths so far this year.

In the past six months, eight Alpha mines were targeted in monthly MSHA impact inspections and inspectors cited more than 90 violations, nearly half of which were classified by the agency as "significant and substantial." The Road Fork Mine was the subject of an impact inspection in September 2011, in which MSHA found 11 violations, four of which were listed as significant.

In the May 18 incident at Road Fork, MSHA issued an "imminent danger" order, "alleging that smoke was encountered" underground, according to a disclosure Alpha filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

MSHA inspectors ordered the mine cleared of all employees, except for certain certified foremen charged with finding the source of the smoke.

"A slipping conveyor belt was promptly identified as the source and repaired," Alpha said in its SEC filing. "No fire was discovered, and all air readings indicated that no fire or combustion had occurred in the Mine."

No injuries were reported, but MSHA did not lift its enforcement order until three days later.

Then, on Thursday night, National Public Radio reported that the incident had prompted dozens of MSHA surprise impact inspections focused on conveyor belts used to transport coal underground at Alpha mines.

A conveyor belt problem at a former Massey operation likely would raise serious concerns at MSHA, given the deaths of two miners in a January 2006 fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. The fire was traced to, among other causes, Massey's chronic failure to properly maintain the conveyor belt to reduce friction and sparks that could cause such blaze.

MSHA released few details Friday about the Road Fork incident or about the results of its inspection sweep.

"That incident is still under investigation, so I don't yet have details about the exact cause," said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for MSHA. "The citations and orders issued during the course of Wednesday's sweep are under review, so I don't yet have an exact number of issuances."

Last month, during a regular quarterly inspection, MSHA officials cited the Road Fork operation for four violations on the same day of federal standards meant to control the buildup of explosive coal dust, to avoid a repeat of the massive blast at Upper Big Branch.

Under an agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Alpha was to implement a plan to ensure that each of its underground mines "has the personnel and resources necessary to meet all legal requirements relating to incombustible material and to prevent accumulations of coal dust and loose coal." In that deal, Goodwin agreed not to bring charges related to any Upper Big Branch-related corporate criminal liability Alpha might have inherited when it bought Massey.

Last week, on the day before the conveyor belt incident at the Road Fork mine, Alpha lawyers wrote to Goodwin to assure prosecutors it had implemented the coal-dust plan and was making progress in improving safety at former Massey mines.

On Friday, Goodwin noted that Alpha is due in early June to submit a more complete six-month report on its progress implementing safety reforms required by the nonprosecution agreement.

"We expect to receive detailed information about Alpha's progress in improving health and safety practices at former Massey operations," Goodwin said. "We are keeping a close eye on problems like the one found at Road Fork, but we won't draw any conclusions until we receive Alpha's report and learn what MSHA found in this week's round of inspections."

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


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