Instead, MSHA officials warned mine operators and miners nationwide that unclogging slurry pipelines could be dangerous and needed to be done carefully.
Four years later, Dec. 28, 2004, heavy equipment operator Earnie Williams and some other workers tried to unclog a frozen slurry line at International Coal Group's Supreme Energy Prep Plant in Knott County, Ky.
The slurry flew out of the line, hit a metal support and ricocheted into Williams' head.
MSHA investigators blamed the death on ICG's failure to design a safe procedure for clearing frozen slurry pipelines. Agency officials fined the company $440.
On March 11, 1996, miners Wesley Littlepage and Rickey Bowles were cleaning up ice that had built up inside a shaft at Costain Coal's Baker Mine in Union County, Ky. The ice fell on them, killing Littlepage.
The company had had similar problems. In October 1995, when the shaft opened, an ice fall damaged a hoist and a cage used to carry miners in and out of the mine. The same thing happened in February 1996 and on March 10, 1996, the day before Littlepage was killed.
After the death, MSHA did not cite or fine the company. Instead, agency officials issued a "safeguard order" that required the company to design a safe ice removal procedure.
On Jan. 28, 2002, Fred R. Hess, a 54-year-old preparation plant worker, was killed when a clean-coal pump blew up at CONSOL's Island Creek VP 8 plant in Buchanan County, Va.
The pump had overheated, causing pressure to build up to unsafe levels. Twelve years earlier, the same thing happened with a different pump at the same plant. Mine managers installed heat and pressure warning alarms on most of the pumps. For some reason, they did not put an alarm on the clean-coal pump.
MSHA officials fined the company nearly $28,000, but settled for a payment of $16,650, agency computer records show. CONSOL added heat and pressure alarms to the clean-coal pump.
'A direct tie to the fatality'
On June 4, 1998, miner Adam Justice was knocking out timbers to move a conveyor belt inside Upper Mill Mining Co.'s Bee Tree Mine at Breaks, Va. At about 1:30 p.m., a rock fell on Justice, pinning him inside a three-wheeled mine car.
Investigators found that mine managers did not check the area before Justice's shift. If they had, investigators said, they might have seen and fixed the loose and damaged roof bolts and loose rocks.
Under federal law, mine operators must perform a variety of regular safety checks. Equipment must be examined, roof control reviewed and methane levels monitored.
But after miners are killed, inspectors frequently find that mine operators did shoddy safety checks, or ignored the requirement altogether.
In one-fourth of the mining deaths in the last 10 years, MSHA investigators found such problems.
Such violations are more than paperwork problems, said Charleston lawyer Mike Callaghan, who prosecuted mine safety cases while he was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1992 to 2001.
"If you have an electrocution, the first thing you do is go in and see if they did the electrical examinations, and they probably didn't," Callaghan said. "That's a direct tie to the fatality."
In the last 10 years, federal prosecutors have brought criminal charges in just eight of the 297 accidents that killed coal miners.
Four of those eight cases included charges concerning failure to do proper safety checks, according to a review of MSHA records and federal court files.
Two years after Adam Justice was killed, prosecutors charged Upper Mill Mining, company President Gary Horn and two other mine managers with criminal violations for not doing required mine safety checks.
In that case, prosecutors also charged Horn for violations related to the death of another miner at a different company.
On May 12, 2000, William Blankenship, a 29-year-old continuous miner operator, was crushed between his machine and a wall at Buchanan Production Co.'s Mine No. 2 near Grundy, Va.
Blankenship was using a remote control to move the mining machine to cut another section of coal. Suddenly, the machine's boom arm swung toward Blankenship's helper, Earnest Owens. Owens ducked, but the boom hit Blankenship and crushed him against a wall.
Investigators ruled the mine manager had not properly trained Blankenship to use the remote control unit.
In recent years, coal industry officials have frequently complained about a shortage of experienced, trained coal miners. At the same time, federal inspectors are finding that lax training — or lack of any training at all — is to blame for mining deaths.
Blankenship was one of 64 miners who died during the last decade at least in part because the company he worked for had not properly trained him.
'With every breath in my body'
Just before the 6 o'clock news Jan. 21, 2006, then-state mine safety Director Doug Conaway took the podium to confirm the worst. The two miners missing in the fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine in Logan County had been found. Rescuers were too late. Ellery Hatfield and Donald Bragg were dead.
Gov. Joe Manchin announced he would introduce three bills he said would make West Virginia's coal mines the safest in the country.
"This has got to stop, and it's going to stop — if I've got anything to do with it — with every breath in my body," said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington disaster.
Two days later, lawmakers unanimously approved Manchin's landmark plan to require rapid rescue response to mine emergencies, mandate electronic tracking of miner locations underground, and force coal companies to provide additional emergency oxygen underground. Other states and the federal government have followed with similar mine rescue initiatives.
But in the 10 months since Sago and Aracoma, Manchin has not acted on other promises or proposals to prevent mine accidents.
The governor has never introduced his promised legislation to ban the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground mines. Critics say the practice, legalized nationwide in 2004 by the Bush administration, helps spread fires, smoke and deadly gases.
Three weeks after the Aracoma fire, Conaway, a holdover from the Wise administration, resigned as director of Manchin's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training to take a job with Arch Coal.
Manchin brought in West Virginia University instructor James Dean to run the office for six months. The governor asked Dean for a complete review of the agency and proposals to make it better.
In early August, just before he left, Dean asked Manchin to hire more inspectors and provide money to improve the pay of existing employees.
On Aug. 31, Manchin appointed Ron Wooten, a former CONSOL Energy safety executive, to the state mine safety post. At the time, Manchin said he wanted Wooten to review Dean's proposals before acting on them.
Last week, Wooten said he has not finished his review.
"We are certainly studying them," Wooten said in an interview. "They're not on a shelf gathering dust."
During the summer, the Manchin administration wasted no time making a major change in another key state mine safety rule.
In late July, the mine safety office finalized a rule that reduces the amount of training miners must receive to be certified to perform electrical work in underground mines.
Previously, state rules required electricians to take part in a 12-month apprentice program. The new rule, which still needs legislative approval, allows "alternative electrical training programs" of less than 12 months.
Peabody Coal and the West Virginia Coal Association supported the proposal. Local officials from the United Mine Workers, the UMW's national safety director, and several coal companies opposed it.
"Somebody always wants to go backwards on our safety," Danny McCoy, a safety committee member at Mechanical Mines said at a July public hearing.
Bud and Stella
In August 2005, Bud and Stella Morris were living together in Cumberland, Ky., a town of about 2,600 not far from the Virginia border.
Both had been through failed marriages. Bud had a son from his previous relationship, and despite being told by doctors she couldn't have kids, Stella was pregnant with their "miracle baby."
On Aug. 3, word spread about a terrible mining accident at Stillhouse Mining's Mine No. 1, just down the road from where Bud worked at H&D Mining. Stella was worried. Her friend Claudia Cole's husband, Russell, worked for Stillhouse. So Bud and Stella drove down to the mine site to find out what had happened. It was a roof fall, they learned. Two miners were missing. One of them was Russell Cole.
At about 9:30 that night, Cole and another miner, Brandon Wilder, were on a crew that was "pulling pillars" that were left during previous mining to hold up the mine roof. The roof fell in on them. It took rescuers three days to dig Russell Cole's body out.
'He didn't think it was safe'
Landen Jaycob Morris was born to Bud and Stella in September.
A few months later, Dec. 30, Stella was just getting into the shower. Bud had left for work about 6 a.m. At about 2 p.m., she would leave for her job at a local convenience store.
The phone rang. It was James H. Hurley, president of H&D Mining.
"Stella, Bud got his legs cut off," she remembers him saying. Stella rushed to the hospital, 20 miles away in Harlan.
"The doctor came out and said they were doing all they could," she remembered. "Five minutes later, the doctor came back and said that he was gone."
Bud and Stella Morris were both 29 years old when he died. Bud had worked in the mines for about five years. Before that, he worked in a factory and at a garage. But the mine paid better.
"He had some back problems, and they were getting worse," she recalled. "He wanted out. He didn't think it was safe."
Today, Stella Morris is back at work. Family members help her care for her son.
"I talk to him every day about his dad, and I'll do that the rest of my life."
Stella wishes the company had called her sooner, so she could have gotten to the hospital before Bud died — so he wouldn't have had to die alone.
"I could have been there before he died, just to tell him I loved him."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
How we did this story
When an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine on Jan. 2, killing 12 workers, coal mine safety again became a national issue.
The Sunday Gazette-Mail wanted to take a broader look, to examine the daily dangers faced by the 79,000 coal miners who help provide more than half of the nation's electricity.
Reporter Ken Ward Jr. had been covering mine safety on and off for much of his 15 years at the newspaper. And he had recently been awarded a six-month fellowship by the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study the coal industry.
Under the direction of City Editor Robert J. Byers, Ward narrowed the focus of his fellowship to a project on coal mine safety. This story, the first in a series of special reports, is the result of that work.
Since April, Ward has traveled the coalfields of West Virginia and visited mining areas in Alabama, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, conducting more than 100 interviews with coal miners, mine operators, mine safety experts, government inspectors and elected officials.
Ward has filed more than two dozen public records requests, and analyzed numerous government computer databases that detail mine safety inspections and enforcement.
Also, Ward examined federal investigation reports concerning the deaths of 320 miners over the last decade, and built his own database to study the findings. Ward also reviewed federal investigation reports from more than two dozen major coal-mining disasters dating back to 1970, and studied dozens of technical papers about mine safety issues.
Future stories will examine, among other issues, the unique dangers faced by strip-mine workers, the controversial emergency breathing devices carried by all coal miners, and the oversight record of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.