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Mine safety chief defends 'stand down' in wake of another death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's mine safety chief Eugene White this morning defended a "safety stand down" ordered by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in the wake of another mining death at an operation where White personally delivered a safety talk as part of the governor's program.

"I really felt good about the stand down," White said in an interview. "I felt like it did some good."

At about 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday, 63-year-old Asa Fitzpatrick of Kermit was killed in a roof fall at Newtown Energy Inc.'s Peerless Rachel Mine near Racine in Boone County.

Fitzpatrick was a roof-bolter machine operator with 40 years' mining experience, state officials said. St. Louis-based Patriot Coal controls the Peerless Rachel Mine, which employs about 140 people.

"We express our deepest sympathies to Asa's family, friends and coworkers," said Michael D. Day, Patriot's executive vice president for operations. "We are fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory officials as we investigate this incident."

White said his investigators, along with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, are just beginning a probe of the Newtown fatality, so it's too soon to say much about what may have caused the incident.

But White did say that the mine roof at Peerless Rachel showed signs of slickensides, which are areas of smooth-surfaced geologic features that are often indications of potentially dangerous roof conditions.

"There are some places we observed last night where it had fallen before, some pieces of roof," White said. "We're looking into that, too."

White said that state inspectors in the region have been told to look close at roof control issues, but that he doesn't have other immediate plans for new actions in the wake of the death.

"I don't know at this minute what we really need to do," White said.

Fitzpatrick is the fifth West Virginia coal miner to die on the job in as many weeks, and the first killed since Tomblin ordered a series of safety talks as part of a "stand down" following four previous deaths in a two-week period from Feb. 6 to Feb. 19.

The governor's office did not immediately respond this morning to a request for comment.

In the past few months, the Tomblin administration's lack of action to implement the state's new mine safety law has come under additional scrutiny, especially following last month's deaths. State officials have delayed implementing new methane monitoring requirements, have not begun enforcing new coal-dust control standards, are not yet issuing increased fines for safety and health violations, and have not used new authority to mandate more comprehensive training at troubled mines.

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


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