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CONSOL cited in death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- CONSOL Energy officials had been concerned about potentially troubling water-pressure readings for more than a week prior to the November 2012 collapse of a coal-slurry embankment that killed a miner, according to a state investigative report released Wednesday.

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training cited CONSOL's Consolidation Coal Co. subsidiary in the incident, which occurred at the Nolan Run impoundment at its Robinson Run Mine near Lumberport.

Dozer operator Markel Koon, 58, of Shinnston, was swept into the impoundment shortly after noon on Nov. 30, when a smaller "saddle dike" collapsed.

State investigators concluded that the embankment "was not constructed or maintained in a manner to ensure safe operation of mobile equipment."

"This is a violation of a health and safety statute of a serious nature involving a fatality," the agency said in a 14-page report provided to the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety during a meeting in Flatwoods.

The incident occurred on an embankment -- constructed of coarse coal refuse piled on top of finer coal slurry -- being built as part of a plan to expand the Nolan Run site so it could continue to accept waste from the nearby Robinson Run Mine's preparation plant.

A large section of the dike area "became unstable, then cracked and collapsed in the water and slurry" inside the impoundment, state officials said in their report.

Two other CONSOL employees who ended up in the impoundment managed to survive. Koon's body, still inside his dozer, wasn't recovered for more than a week.

The state's report cited company emails that indicate CONSOL had for at least a week been monitoring high water-pressure readings that could indicate the structure wasn't stable.

In one email, dated Nov. 24, a CONSOL official asked if the readings "mean we have to stop placing slate here until the pressure goes back down." In response, another company official wrote the next day that "the area should be monitored for a week or so to let it stabilize," the state's report said, paraphrasing both electronic messages.

State officials said Wednesday that it was possible the elevated pressure readings were not correct, because the monitoring equipment had been installed only a week earlier, on Nov. 16, and needed time to stabilize.

The state report cited another CONSOL email, sent at 11 a.m. the day of the collapse, indicating the pressure reading was the same as the week before.

CONSOL officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In their new report, state investigators provide previously undisclosed details of what happened in the moments leading up to the embankment collapse.

At about 11:30 a.m., CONSOL engineer Paul Stuart Carter arrived at the site "after receiving numerous emails from Mr. [Michael] Friedline, [a CONSOL supervisor], in the past weeks concerning the high readings being obtained" on the embankment's pressure monitor.

Carter and Friedline went to the location of the monitor, where they "observed excessive bubbling of water in the impoundment along the eastern toe/slope and east of the [monitor]," the report said.

"Mr. Carter asked Mr. Friedline if he had noticed the bubbling earlier in the day," the report said. "Mr. Friedline said, 'yes, but not as bad.' Mr. Carter then stated, 'we need to get off the fill.'"

Friedline radioed Koon, who was operating a dozer on the outer slope of the dump, telling him to leave the area.

"Mr. Koon was pushing refuse up the slope to install berms and to seal and track loose material of the outer slope," the report said. "Mr. Koon immediately trammed the dozer to the top of the slope when a large crack began to develop across the refuse fill area.

"After the large crack developed, a large section of the fill immediately became unstable," the report said. "Water/slurry shot through the developing cracks, causing large sections of refuse to break off, sinking into the impoundment."

The report said that Koon was heard on the radio saying, "what's going on" as the refuse fill began to fail.

"As the section of the refuse began to slide, it caused the dozer that Mr. Koon was operating to turn, going blade first into the water of the impoundment," the report said. "The cab of the dozer was visible for a few seconds then sank into the water."

The report said that Friedline and Carter tried to run to stable ground, but both became submerged in the water and slurry, along with the pickup trucks they had driven to the site.

"The conditions of the impoundment deteriorated quickly, causing large sections of an approximately 5-foot high wave of slurry to travel west to east, then return to the collapsed area of the saddle dike," the report said.

Friedline swam to safety. Carter was swept out to a "slurry island," the report said, and was later rescued by local emergency responders.

The report added that the investigation "has been ongoing since the victim was recovered. Data and information has been collected and is still being gathered at this time. Further recommendations and findings of fact may be submitted when all data and information is collected and reviewed."

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


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