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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.