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Beyond Sago: Coal dust most common violation

BROOKWOOD, Ala. — On a September afternoon in 2001, 32 miners repaired drilling machines and hoisted tunnel supports into place at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine. The mine is North America’s deepest, tracking the 6-foot-high Blue Creek seam almost a half-mile beneath the rolling hills just east of Tuscaloosa.

At about 5:20 p.m., a chunk of mine roof fell onto a battery charger deep underground. The impact set off a spark, igniting a pocket of methane gas. Four miners were injured, and co-workers rushed to their aid.

Then, at 6:15 p.m., a second, far larger explosion tore through the mine. Thirteen miners died, making it the nation’s worst coal-mining disaster in 17 years.

Investigators later concluded that the second — and clearly most deadly — explosion was fueled primarily by coal dust. The case is still under appeal, but federal inspectors believed that Jim Walter Resources failed to keep the mine clear of the explosive dust, a long-standing requirement of mine safety rules.

Across the coalfields, there is a long history of mine explosions that were turned from small accidents into major disasters by the failure of mine operators to control coal dust.

Coal dust explosions are far more powerful than methane blasts. When methane ignites in the presence of excessive dust, an explosion that might have caused minor damage or injured miners nearby can easily shoot through mine tunnels, killing dozens of workers.

In December 1970, for example, 38 miners died in a blast at Finley Coal Co.’s Nos. 15 and 16 mines at Hyden, Ky.

The blast itself was ignited by the use of improper explosions underground. But federal investigators found that, “Excessive accumulations of coal dust, and inadequate applications of rock dust in parts of Nos. 15 and 16 mines permitted propagation of the explosion throughout the mines.”

Given the dangers, federal law requires coal operators to control dust. Mine managers must clean up dust, and spread incombustible crushed limestone, or “rock dust,” throughout their mines.

But year in and year out, coal companies are cited for dust violations far more often than any other problem at underground mines, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data.

Last year alone, mine operators were cited more than 7,000 times — about 20 citations per day — for allowing unsafe accumulations of dust underground, according to the MSHA data. The next most common violation, proper maintenance of electrical equipment, was cited only half as many times, MSHA data shows.

Over the last five years, MSHA inspectors cited an average of 6,350 dust accumulation violations annually, a number that one mine safety advocate says is simply unacceptable.

“To me, it’s really an inexcusable violation,” said Kentucky lawyer Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate. “It is easy to fix.”

Often, Oppegard said, cleaning up dust accumulations is as simple as assigning a couple to miners to shovel off conveyor belts.

“If operators were as concerned about shoveling the belts and cleaning up dust as they are about keeping a belt running, these kinds of violations wouldn’t happen,” Oppegard said.

“MSHA should not tolerate these repeated instances of dirty mines,” he said. “Once you have a couple of those, there really should be no patience with it.”

Sago coal dust controlled

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, arguments raged in mine safety circles about whether coal dust — alone, without the presence of methane — was explosive. Scientists, operators and even the United Mine Workers were divided on the issue, according to an account by William Graebner in his book, “Coal-Mining Safety in the Progressive Period.” Some said that dust ignited only after methane gas exploded, and added force to such blasts.

But a theory was emerging that dust alone also could be ignited. It gained speed in March 1906, when an explosion in a mine at Courrieres, France, killed 1,230 miners, almost four times the most to die in any U.S. disaster to this day. The mine had been free of methane, and experts concluded that dust alone had fueled the blast.

In more recent years, coal dust has been linked to at least six major U.S. explosions since 1970 that killed 73 miners, federal records show.

A few examples:

s On March 9 and 11, 1976, two explosions killed a total of 26 workers — including three federal inspectors — at Scotia Coal Co. at Ovenfork in Letcher County, Ky. Federal investigators found that coal dust up to eight inches deep helped to fuel and accelerate the second Scotia explosion.

s On Dec. 7, 1981, eight miners died in an explosion at Adkins Coal Co.’s No. 11 Mine at Kite, Knott County, Ky. Investigators found that the mine operator had not cleaned up coal dust on the mine walls, roof and floor. “Loose coal and coal dust, including float coal dust, from 1 to 4 inches in depth had accumulated at numerous locations on the scoop haul roads from the section loading point to the last open crosscut,” a federal report concluded.

s On Dec. 7, 1992, eight miners died in an explosion at Southmountain Coal Co.’s No. 3 Mine near Norton, Va. Methane was ignited by a butane lighter, and coal dust spread the explosion throughout the mine to the surface, a government report found.

More recently, at least one investigator has found that proper control of coal dust accumulations might have kept the Sago Mine disaster from being even worse.

Twelve miners died at Sago, but Gov. Joe Manchin’s special investigator, Davitt McAteer, concluded that more could have died if mine owner International Coal Group had not properly rock-dusted outside the sealed area where the explosion occurred.

“Deprived of coal dust as a mechanism to propagate the forces generated by the initial ignition, the explosion of January 2 had lost much (although certainly not all) of its power before it reached the One Left crew at their location further outby the sealed area,” McAteer said in a report released in July.

“They experienced the blast mainly as a powerful rush of air and debris,” McAteer wrote. “A coal dust explosion, in contrast, might have engulfed the entire mine, killing everyone inby the portal. Moreover, deprived of coal dust, the explosion did not ignite a mine fire, which if it had spread could have made escape for the One Left crew more problematic or impossible.”

In a more recent report, issued last week, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training raised questions about whether the sealed area at Sago was properly rock-dusted before it was sealed. But agency Director Ronald Wooten has refused to answer questions about that report.

In underground mines, dust is produced at the working face where coal is mined, at conveyor belts and coal transfer points, and by the normal movement of workers and machines. Coarse dust settles rapidly. But fine coal particles remain airborne much longer, and can be blown relatively long distances in underground mines. This fine dust is known as float coal dust, and it can be a major danger to underground miners.

After the 2001 Jim Walters disaster, the U.S. General Accounting Office faulted MSHA for not having a clear program to regulate float coal dust. Several MSHA district managers told the GAO that “the lack of a specific criteria for floating coal dust makes it difficult to determine what is an allowable level.”

“As a result, mine inspectors must rely on their own experience and personal opinion to determine if the accumulation of floating coal dust is a safety hazard that constitutes a violation,” the GAO said in a September 2003 report. “According to some inspectors we interviewed, this has led, in some cases, to inconsistencies in inspectors’ interpretations of the procedures — some inspectors have cited violations for levels of floating coal dust that have not brought citations from other inspectors.”

In response, MSHA said that float coal dust “must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” There is no “shopping list or clear-cut formula to indicate when and to what degree that presence of coal dust poses a distinct hazard to the miners,” MSHA officials told the GAO.

During interviews earlier this year, coal miners from several states said that they repeatedly argue with company officials and MSHA inspectors about float coal dust problems in their mines.

Eric Greathouse, a United Mine Workers safety committeeman at CONSOL Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County, W.Va., said the problem is that MSHA has no firm standard.

“It’s not like you need two inches or you need three inches,” Greathouse said. “There’s no set limit.”

“Float coal dust is where we have our biggest arguments — is it too much or not?” said Floyd Campbell, a UMW safety committee member at Foundation Coal’s Emerald Mine near Waynesburg, Pa.

Campbell said that the problem is too dangerous to mess with. “If anything would ignite, it would blow that dust into the air, and propagate the explosion,” he said.

‘Unfinished legacy’

In late September, several hundred miners and their families gathered outside a small white church in Brookwood to mark the fifth anniversary of the Jim Walter disaster. The church, the remaining building from the original company town, is adjacent to huge coal stockpiles above the No. 5 Mine. A stone monument lists the names of the miners who died five years ago, and 13 evergreen trees grow in the background.

Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMW District 20, told the crowd that Sept. 23, 2001, is “a day that will live in infamy for all coal miners and their families.

“The legacy of Brookwood remains unfinished,” Dewberry said. “It can happen again without constant vigilance.”

In 2002 and 2003, the number of dust accumulation violations dropped from their 2001 levels. But since then, the citations have gone back up, increasing 6 percent over 2001.

In Monday’s Charleston Gazette: If investigators can’t pinpoint the cause of the Sago Mine disaster, it wouldn’t be the first time.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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