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Despite widow's plea, board rejects 'proximity' device rules

FLATWOODS, W.Va. -- Before they voted on a rule to require "proximity detection" equipment in underground coal mines, Caitlin O'Dell wanted to introduce members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety to her son.

Andrew O'Dell never got to meet his father. He was born last Dec. 21, three weeks after Steven O'Dell was crushed to death by a maintenance "scoop" vehicle in the Alpha Natural Resources coal mine where he worked.

Caitlin O'Dell came to Flatwoods to urge mine safety board members to require all of the state's underground coal operations to install systems that would shut off mining equipment when it gets too close to workers. She believes such a system would have saved her husband's life, and could spare other families the pain hers has suffered.

"I'm here to ask you to stop history from repeating itself," Caitlin O'Dell told board members. "You have an opportunity today to change history for the next family. It's too late for mine."

Board members expressed their sympathies to Mrs. O'Dell. They admired her 9-month-old son, and they thanked her for coming to "put a face" on the issue.

Then, the board's three industry representatives voted to block two different motions from their United Mine Workers counterparts to move forward with "proximity detection" rules.

Board member Chris Hamilton, a West Virginia Coal Association vice president, said the matter needs further study and discussion.

Hamilton suggested the board set up a serious of meetings around the state to discuss proximity detection systems, as well as cameras, strobe lights, reflective clothing and other possible steps to cut down on crushing and pinning injuries and deaths.

UMW board members voted down that proposal, saying state officials have discussed and debated the issue enough and need to take action.

"There's a been a whole bunch of fatalities and nothing's been done," said Carl Egnor, a UMW representative to the board. "It's time this board do something."

The board's move is the latest in a series of inactions by state officials on mine safety measures since 29 miners died in the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and following passage of legislation last year that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said was "comprehensive."

Mine safety experts say that proximity detection systems could help prevent one of the most common types of mining accidents - being crushed or pinned by mobile underground equipment - by stopping mining machines and coal-haulage vehicles when they get too close too workers.

Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners died and 200 were injured nationwide when they became crushed, pinned or struck by continuous mining machines underground, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

On the federal level, MSHA has been working on two rules to require proximity detection systems nationwide. One proposal, covering only continuous mining machines, is stuck inside MSHA. The other, addressing all other mobile underground equipment, has been pending at the White House Office of Management and Budget for more than two years.

MSHA chief Joe Main has touted the fact that some mine operators - led by CONSOL Energy and Alliance Coal - are installing proximity detectors without a legal mandate to do so. But board members have in recent months reviewed several reports of incidents where companies installed proximity systems only after miners were hurt or killed in crushing and pinning accidents.

In West Virginia, state mine safety officials at one point hoped to move to require proximity detection systems ahead of any federal mandate.

The state's Mine Safety Technology Task Force began studying the issue, in part based on a request from Hamilton and the coal association, and planned to have a draft regulation ready by January 2009. And in September 2008, four top state mine inspectors drafted a memo recommending specific language that would have given mine operators a year to install the equipment.

But the effort stalled, until the task force voted two weeks ago to resurrect its proposal following a Gazette story that detailed the previous recommendations and noted the state had never moved forward.

Task force members sent their recommendations to the board, a six-member body with three members each from industry and labor, all appointed by the governor.

When board members met Wednesday morning in Flatwoods, the task force recommendation was on their agenda, and Caitlin O'Dell was in the audience.

At about 1:20 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2012, 27-year-old Steven O'Dell of Mount Nebo, an electrician at Alpha's subsidiary White Buck Coal's Pocahontas Mine near Rupert, was performing maintenance on a continuous mining machine. Another worker was driving a "scoop" nearby and hit O'Dell, pinning him against the continuous mining machine. O'Dell was transported to the surface and taken to the Greenbrier Valley Medical Center in Ronceverte, where he was pronounced dead at 2:29 a.m.

"I'm Stephen O'Dell's widow," Caitlin O'Dell said when she introduced herself to board members. "No matter how many times I say that it doesn't seem real.

"My husband was a good man. He was an intelligent man," she said. "This is Andrew. The son he never got to meet."

Hamilton, the Coal Association lobbyist, said that from his reading of the reports on O'Dell's death, there were factors other than the lack of proximity detectors that played a role in the incident. He noted, for example, that supplies were piled high up on the scoop, partially blocking the driver's view.

Hamilton moved that the board set up a series of meetings looking at a broad range of issues involved in such incidents. Hamilton and the other two industry representatives, Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal and Charles Russell of Arch Coal, voted in favor.

Hudson said his vote shouldn't be seen as an effort to delay regulations requiring proximity devices.

"We're going to be looking at this long and hard and quickly," Hudson said. "We need to put this on the front burner and start moving forward with it. I'm not trying to delay, but we need to work on this."

But the board's three UMW members -- Egnor, Gary Trout and Ted Hapney -- voted against Hamilton's motion, so it failed.

Hamilton went on to argue that the task force's proposed rule would not have prevented O'Dell's death because it would require proximity detectors only on certain continuous mining machines, not on scoops like the one that hit O'Dell.

Trout and Hapney responded with a motion for board administrator Joel Watts to draft a new proposal that would require proximity devices on all types of underground mining equipment, including scoops and shuttle cars.

"I don't think we need to delay," Hapney said. "We need to act now."

The three UMW members voted for the proposal, but the three industry representatives voted against it. With another 3-3 vote, that motion failed.

Hapney then moved that the board put the task force's recommended rule, covering only continuous mining machines, out for public comment.

Again, the industry and labor representatives were split, and the 3-3 tie left that proposal dead as well.

Caitlin O'Dell got up to leave, telling board members as she walked out of the meeting room, "I'm really disappointed. If you can't agree on something, it's going to happen again and at that point, the blood is on your hands."

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

 


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