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Tomblin, MSHA seek greater focus on coal safety

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citing a string of recent mining deaths, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday ordered all West Virginia coal operators to briefly halt production to review safety laws and best practices with the state's miners.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced a similar effort, saying it would coordinate mine visits with West Virginia officials and calling the recent mining deaths "tragic and unacceptable."

But state and federal officials stopped short of any new inspection or enforcement efforts, saying what Tomblin called a "safety stand-down" would involve short safety talks to remind miners they work in a dangerous industry that requires constant attention to safety practices.

"This is not a shutdown of mining operations," Tomblin emphasized during an early afternoon news conference at the Capitol. "We are working statewide with mining industry officials to ensure we are taking all necessary precautions."

The governor announced the "safety stand-down" following the Tuesday night death of a Raleigh County miner who was run over by an underground mining "scoop" vehicle.

It was the fourth West Virginia coal-mining death in the last two weeks, the sixth since November and the ninth since what Tomblin called a "comprehensive" mine safety bill took effect last June.

Nationally, MSHA reported six coal-mining deaths through Wednesday, far ahead of the pace at this time last year, when there had been just one coal fatality.

MSHA chief Joe Main said his agency would send addition inspectors into West Virginia, not for enhanced enforcement actions, but for safety talks coordinated with those being organized by the state.

"Our enforcement personnel will be armed with detailed handouts and will talk directly to mine operators and miners, reminding them about the critical need for safe work practices," Main said.

"The industry is coming off two of the safest years in mining in this country," he said. "The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners."

In Tuesday night's incident, shuttle car operator John Myles, 44, of Hilltop, was killed at Pocahontas Coal's Affinity Mine near Sophia. Myles was hit by a scoop as he shoveled coal debris from the mine wall, officials said. The accident occurred at about 8 p.m.

It was the second fatal accident in two weeks at the operation, which reopened to great fanfare two years ago after the Ukrainian holding company Metinvest bought it from United Coal. Last year, the mine produced 350,000 tons of coal with about 175 employees, records show.

"We're very saddened and concerned about having two fatalities," said Jennifer Guthrie, corporate counsel and company spokeswoman. "As these investigations develop, we are developing our safety responses. That's something we're evaluating now."

During a regular quarterly inspection that began in early January and remains ongoing, MSHA has issued nearly 60 citations and enforcement orders at the Affinity Mine. Last year, MSHA fined the operation more than $125,000 for safety violations.

In February 2012, MSHA inspectors cited the Affinity Mine after they alleged that a mine dispatcher warned an underground foreman that federal and state inspectors had arrived and were headed underground. MSHA officials have said that similar "advance notices" of inspections helped Massey Energy cover up safety problems prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and part of Tomblin's safety legislation aimed to combat what many say is a common industry practice.

Tuesday night's death at Affinity occurred just hours after lawmakers at the state Capitol completed a mine safety hearing that examined, in part, a series of missteps and delays by the Tomblin administration in implementing tougher methane monitoring requirements, improved coal-dust control standards, and stiffer penalties ordered by lawmakers as part of last year's legislation.

In a two-page executive order issued early Wednesday afternoon, the governor required all mining operations to, within the next 24 hours, halt production for an hour to hold safety talks with employees.

"We're asking them to take the first hour of their shifts and talk about safety," said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

White said his agency is still considering other actions that could be taken in the wake of the latest run of mining deaths.

"We're just trying to figure it all out," White said Wednesday. "We're going to take a good, hard look at everything."

Tomblin said he would not consider any additional mine safety legislation until investigations of the recent deaths are completed.

Industry and labor officials said that they so far haven't seen any patterns, and support Tomblin's effort to simply remind miners to focus more on working safely.

"I understand there just aren't any explanations for these as they do the preliminary investigations," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "That's one of the frustrating things, is you can't identify any one particular thing that's causing it."

Ted Hapney, a lobbyist for the United Mine Workers, said, "We're always concerned when it comes to accidents and fatalities. The problem you get is that sometimes miners lose their focus. That's what the idea here is, to get their focus back. I don't think it's enforcement. It might be that miners aren't as focused as they should be."

But other mine safety experts criticized the Tomblin administration's response, and said there were other options -- such as requiring mine operators to install "proximity detection" equipment that shuts off mining equipment when it comes too close to workers. Two of the state's six fatal accidents since November involved miners being hit by mobile underground equipment, records show.

Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said the string of deaths should force regulators to take a harder line with the industry.

"You've got to put the fear of God in them," McAteer said.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety lawyer in Kentucky, said that West Virginia's mine safety stand down is really just "a publicity stunt." Oppegard said that increased inspections and enforcement would be more meaningful, and that he's known plenty of unsafe coal operations where miners were routinely given safety talks.

"You can run a doghole and have safety talks," Oppegard said. "To me, it's just not an impressive action."

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


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