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FEDS, STATE REOPEN PROBE OF COAL TRUCKER'S DEATH

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.

Described by his mother as a "homebody," Cook had not yet married or had children. Instead, he lived with his parents on his grandfather's farm near Hyndman, Pa., helping to tend dairy cows.

Cook liked to ride four-wheelers and play pool. He didn't hunt or fish, but did study old firearms as a hobby, according to his mother, Gay Cook.

Cook had two younger sisters. "We were very close," his mother said.

For a while, Cook had worked away from home, installing highway signs, and then hauling steel on a big rig. He moved back to help with the farm, and had gotten a job at Mettiki about a month before he died.

'It looked pretty bad'

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, 2005, Savage Services foreman Robert Hovatter got a call from one of his truck drivers at Mettiki Coal.

"Anthony Guido contacted me on the company radio and said we had a truck overturned at turn seven, and it looked pretty bad," Hovatter said in a police statement.

Guido told police he arrived on the scene about a minute after the accident. Guido stopped his own truck, got out and checked to see if Cook was moving. Then, he returned to his truck to call for help.

In a report, State Police Trooper S.M. Durrah concluded that Cook's truck "entered a right-hand turn at an undetermined rate of speed, exited the roadway to the left, overturned and came to rest upright."

Durrah tried to get the West Virginia Public Service Commission to send someone out that night to investigate. The PSC refused.

A federal MSHA inspector apparently arrived sometime before Durrah left the scene at 7:30 a.m., the State Police report states.

MSHA officials never prepared an official chargeability report on Cook's death. The inspector who went to the scene apparently wrote a memo to Stricklin, who was then the agency's district manager in Morgantown. MSHA would not release a copy of the memo, and has never shared it with Cook's family.

Asked several weeks ago about the agency's decision not to count the death, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said, "Although the road is owned and maintained by Mettiki, it is not connected to the mine property and, therefore, does not come under MSHA jurisdiction."

No state mine safety inspector responded to Cook's accident.

In response to the Gazette-Mail's initial inquiries, Caryn Gresham, a spokeswoman for mine safety office director Wooten, said the state, "did not investigate because this did not happen on bonded property."

At some point, MSHA called its sister agency, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but OSHA decided not to investigate either.

"It was not on a mine site," said Stan Elliott, director of OSHA's Charleston office. "It was out on the open highway."

Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate from Kentucky, said the state and federal explanations just don't make sense.

"It's hard to understand why MSHA and the state would not investigate that," Oppegard said. "It's baffling."

Last week, officials from state and federal agencies admitted that their initial decisions were wrong.

"It looks like it was a mistake," MSHA's Stricklin said. "And we're going to try to correct it."

Wooten said state officials clearly should have counted Cook's death. Wooten said he was especially convinced by the fact that Mettiki opened a new mine, connected to the haul road, in West Virginia in 2004.

Even now that Cook's death is being counted, though, Wooten isn't certain how much of an investigation his agency can perform. The truck might be gone or have been repaired. Witnesses might no longer work at the operation or their memories might have faded.

Wooten said his agency will adopt the findings of the State Police report, but also try to gather some new information itself.

"Based on what looking we have done," Wooten said, "we don't feel that we can really verify the information we would have needed to do a real investigation."

'We do pretty well'

In an internal report, the trucking firm Savage Services blamed the accident on Cook. Company officials said Cook was driving too fast and became distracted.

Company investigators could not determine how Cook became distracted. He hadn't made or received any cell phone calls, and other drivers said there was no excessive radio chatter. Cook's lunch box was closed. The company pointed to a flashlight that was turned on inside the cab.

"The light itself is such that the on switch is recessed in the end of the light, which would make it difficult to be turned on inadvertently during the crash," the company report said.

In the months after Cook's death, a lawyer for the family hired an expert to inspect the truck. The expert found no problems with the truck, or with the road. The lawyer told Cook's parents they didn't have a case.

The Cooks still wonder, though. Chad had told his father, Blaine, there were problems with the truck's transmission.

Howard Goodman, a spokesman for Savage Services, said he could not recall a trucking accident where faulty equipment or maintenance by his company was to blame.

"We have a pretty good maintenance record and procedure and process," Goodman said. "I think we do pretty well."

Officials from Mettiki and its parent company, Alliance Resource Partners, did not return phone calls for this story.

Blaine Cook said the family is glad government officials are finally going to do something.

"Nothing will ever change what happened," Blaine said last week. "But this is going to help. I really want to know what happened."

Gay Cook said she and her husband were especially frustrated when they tried to get government officials to explain why their son's death wasn't investigated.

"Few of them ever called us back, and those who did said they couldn't help us," she said. "Somebody should have looked into this."


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