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Consol still looking for missing miner

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators have given Consol Energy the go-ahead to try a complex diving operation aimed at locating the body of a United Mine Workers union member killed a week ago when a coal-waste embankment collapsed in Harrison County.

The plan approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also gives Consol permission to resume dumping coal slurry into the Nolan Run impoundment near Lumberport, even as efforts to find the miner's body continue.

On Saturday, Consol plans to try to find the body by sending divers into the impoundment through a 40-foot pipe. They'll try to enter the dozer and recover the body. If that doesn't work, the company will try building a small dam around the dozer, pumping coal waste out of that area, and then sending divers into the water.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said a forensics dog brought to the property Thursday night "gave a positive reaction, indicating that the recovery team is working in the right location."

Crews have been searching for more than a week for the missing miner, whose bulldozer fell into the impoundment when part of the saddle dike collapsed shortly after noon on Nov. 30. Two Consol engineers and their pickups also ended up in the slurry, but the engineers escaped and were treated at local hospitals and released.

The incident at Consol's Robinson Run complex occurred the same day that an Alpha Natural Resources miner was killed when he was crushed between two pieces of mining equipment at an underground mine in Greenbrier County.

West Virginia leads the nation with seven of the 19 U.S. coal-mining deaths in 2012.

The Nolan Run incident has renewed discussion of citizen concerns about coal-waste impoundment safety in West Virginia.

Construction of the embankment involved placing coal refuse on top of previously placed coal refuse, a process in which experts say it is key to allow enough time for wet material from the preparation plan to dry out, harden, consolidate and gain enough strength. Earlier this week, activists launched a petition campaign to urge President Obama to order a moratorium on this sort of slurry construction.

Since last year, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has been working on a study that examines whether the state's coal-refuse dam material is properly compacted. The OSM has refused to release the results of its testing.

Meanwhile, Consol had suspended all mining at Robinson Run last weekend, but resumed smaller-scale "development mining" Monday morning and had the mine's more lucrative longwall machine running again Wednesday, officials said.

MSHA approved the company's plan to restart the Robinson Run preparation plant and resume disposing of slurry in the impoundment. Company officials released a diagram showing a large boom being placed across the impoundment to isolate active slurry disposal from the section where the bulldozer is located. Consol vice president for safety Lou Barletta said the slurry dumping "will not interfere" with the body recovery efforts.

UMW spokesman Phil Smith said the union agreed to the Consol plan, on the condition that active slurry disposal occur only in that isolated area away from the recovery efforts.

"The understanding we have with them is, if the current plan to recover the body over the next couple of days fails, they are going to stop using the preparation plant until we can figure out another way to go at this thing," Smith said. "It gives them a window of several days to produce while we do this to try to go find the body."

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


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