GATZMER - On Nov. 8, 2005, Chad Cook was hauling a load of coal down Mountain View Mine Road along the Grant-Tucker County line.
Cook had picked up the load at Mettiki Coal's preparation plant in Maryland. He was headed for the Mount Storm Power Station, high atop the Allegheny Front.
Shortly after midnight on a cold, starlit night, Cook's truck ran off the road and slammed into a guardrail.
"I was about three minutes behind this truck," recalled fellow driver Homer Hebb, according to a police report. "I could see the lights off the road and there was dust and steam from the radiator in the air."
Hebb and several other co-workers cut Cook's seatbelt and pulled him out of the truck, but he was already dead.
A West Virginia State Police trooper wrote a short report. Cook's employer, the contract-trucking firm Savage Services, did its own review.
However, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration never investigated. Neither did the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
No government agency charged with enforcing workplace safety tried to figure out why Cook died, or count him as a worker killed on the job.
State and federal officials said they didn't have jurisdiction. Cook died on a public road, they said, a highway not considered part of Mettiki's mining operations.
However, since the early 1980s, the road has been covered by West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection permits, making it legally part of mine property, a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found.
At the entrance to Mountain View Mine Road, a huge sign warns drivers: "This is a private road and not for public use." A smaller sign lists the road's DEP permit numbers.
After the Gazette-Mail pointed out the DEP permits and the road sign, MSHA and state mine safety officials last week began a new investigation of Cook's death.
"We're reopening the investigation," said Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal mine health and safety at MSHA. "There are a lot of questions."
On Thursday, Ron Wooten, director of the state mine safety office, said his agency would count Cook as a mining death. Starting this week, agency inspectors would begin a limited investigation, confined by whatever information they can gather one and a half years after Cook died.
"We're going to do some additional checking and see what information we can find," Wooten said.
On Saturday, however, Gov. Joe Manchin's office said that Wooten's decision had been put on hold.
Carte Goodwin, Manchin's general counsel, said he asked Wooten to hold off until a meeting Monday with Mettiki officials.
"Representatives of the company called and wanted to tell their side of the story and obviously we're always willing to let them do that," Goodwin said Saturday afternoon.
Goodwin said he discussed the issue with Alex Macia, a Mettiki lobbyist, but that the company requested the meeting through gubernatorial chief of staff Larry Puccio.
Charging the industry
Cook's death highlights a growing controversy over the way safety regulators define a mining-related death.
If deaths are not counted, or "charged" as MSHA says, the industry's safety record looks better. Individual companies avoid detailed investigations that can bring citations and fines.
Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said there is another, more important problem. If deaths are not counted, McAteer said, investigators don't fully examine accidents. They don't find out what happened and learn lessons to help avoid future deaths.
For years, MSHA's policy was pretty clear: "If a worker is killed on mine property, the death of that worker is chargeable."
In West Virginia, the policy has been equally straightforward: If the accident occurred on property covered by a state DEP permit and reclamation bond, it was counted and investigated. Starting in late 2003, the United Mine Workers union began complaining that MSHA was not counting certain types of accidents that had previously been deemed chargeable. They cited examples: truck drivers, security guards and loggers who cut trees in advance of strip mining.
Ellen Smith, who edits the newsletter Mine Safety and Health News, started asking questions and writing stories about the issue, as did the Gazette-Mail.
Interest in mine safety issues increased after the Sago Mine disaster in January 2006. Last year, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on the chargeability debate prompted new MSHA chief Richard Stickler to promise to look into the issue.
In February, Stickler issued a new policy that critics say tightens the definition of a mining death. Stickler said he looked at reports on a few deaths that had not been counted by his predecessor, Dave D. Lauriski. However, Stickler declined to say what he found, and has not ordered a more detailed review of noncharged deaths from previous years.
"I did look at them, and I had questions in my own mind," Stickler said. "But I don't want to take time to go back and critique everything that's happened here for how many years you want to go back. I want to focus on the future."
An old controversy
A decade ago, the Mettiki haul road was big news.
For years, the Mount Storm Power Station bought its coal from nearby Consol Energy Inc. The coal was dug by members of the United Mine Workers union and shipped through a covered conveyor-belt system to the power plant.
In 1997, Virginia Power Co. switched to Mettiki for its coal supply. The company was based in Maryland, and its workers were not unionized. About 160 UMW members stood to lose their jobs.
Mettiki wanted to truck its coal to the Mount Storm plant. To do it, Mettiki wanted to use an old haul road that Buffalo Coal Co. had received permits for in 1980-81. UMW members and officials protested. Among other tactics, union officials challenged the transfer of the haul-road permits from Buffalo Coal to Mettiki.
The union lost the fight. However, in its August 1997 ruling, the state Surface Mine Board offered a clear description of the Mountain View Mine Road's role in Mettiki's mining operations.
At the time, the board said, Mettiki mined coal in Maryland. Contract truckers haul the coal from Mettiki's preparation plant, also in Maryland, on public roads to W.Va. 90. From W.Va. 90, the truckers enter the Mountain View Haul Road, and drive south about 6.2 miles to W.Va. 93, the mine board ruling noted. Truckers pick up W.Va. 93 a few miles east of Davis, and follow it east to the Mount Storm Plant.
"The private road utilized by Mettiki hauling coal was previously used for coal haulage and permitted as a coal haul road by Buffalo Mining under three separate permits, which connect to one another to form a single roadway connecting State Routes 90 and 93," said the ruling.
'We were very close'
Chad Cook died two weeks shy of his 26th birthday.