Shortly after 8 a.m. on May 18, MSHA inspectors arrived at the mine near Pineville, expecting to continue work on a regular, quarterly inspection of the underground operation.
Instead, "it was determined that management was attempting to locate the source of thick smoke that miners had encountered" in a tunnel just outside a working section of the mine," inspectors reported. MSHA ordered the mine evacuated, except for a foreman whose job it was to find the source of the smoke, and cited the company for not evacuating the operation itself.
No one was injured in the incident, but MSHA inspectors wrote in an order that, "The operator has engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence because thick smoke was verified, the source of the smoke was not known, miners were underground and the extent of the source of the smoke could not be determined to allow miners to remain underground safely."
MSHA officials said the smoke was traced to what they have called a "burned belt" that is still under investigation. Alpha said in its SEC filing that,
"A slipping conveyor belt was promptly identified as the source [of the smoke] and repaired." Alpha added that, "No fire was discovered, and all air reading indicated that no fire or combustion had occurred in the mine."
MSHA inspectors, though, issued a dozen enforcement orders and citations found at Road Fork 51, including:
Under an agreement that avoided corporate criminal charges from Upper Big Branch, Alpha was required to have implemented 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."
"I'm disturbed that when we got to the mine and they knew that they had smoke that we had to order the operator to remove the people from the mine," Stricklin said Thursday. "When I looked at the conditions that we found, it disturbed me even more."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.