Mine hailed as model of safety faces federal probe
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six months ago, Obama administration Labor Secretary Hilda Solis emerged from Patriot Coal's Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County and said she was "in awe" of "one of the most premier and regulated mines" in the Appalachian coalfields.
After an underground tour in early August, Solis joined West Virginia political leaders, labor officials and Patriot managers in praising Federal No. 2 as a model for the rest of the mining industry.
"It was evident that management and labor can work together to ensure that workers are safe, earn a good wage, and can be proud that their work is contributing to meeting our nation's diverse energy needs," Solis said in a newspaper commentary describing her visit.
But now, Federal No. 2 -- one of West Virginia's largest underground coal mines -- has been shut down at least twice in the last two weeks. Explosive levels of methane were found in sealed parts of the mine, after at least one foreman admitted he falsified a required safety examination of the sealed area.
That foreman says he was forced to fake such records, and is cooperating with a broader criminal probe in which federal prosecutors have targeted five other mine officials. Meanwhile, Patriot Coal and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have been at odds over how to fix the methane problems.
"The union is very, very concerned about this," said United Mine Workers International Vice President Mike Caputo, who worked at Federal No. 2 for more than 20 years. "The health and safety of the miners has to be foremost."
Fawn Thomas, a spokeswoman for Acting U.S. Attorney Betsy C. Jividen, declined to comment or to confirm the existence of an investigation. But state mine safety officials described in some detail the events that led up to the launch of the federal probe.
"Given the situation, we're going to watch this very carefully," said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. "We have a concern about what is happening here."
In a news release, Patriot said it had temporarily suspended production at Federal No. 2 "after discovering potentially adverse atmospheric conditions" at the mine.
The news release said Patriot was working with MSHA to resolve the issue so it could resume production. Patriot did not respond to requests for further comment.
An MSHA official at the district office in Morgantown refused to comment and hung up on a reporter. An agency spokeswoman also declined to discuss specifics of the investigation.
In late January, state inspectors began an investigation after receiving a complaint about safety check reports being faked at Federal No. 2.
Wooten said one foreman, John Renner of Morgantown, told state investigators that he entered a mandatory safety check in Federal No. 2 records books on Jan. 24, but did not actually perform that entire safety examination.
Wooten said a mine vehicle Renner was using broke down, and he ended up not completing part of his examination that should have included checking methane levels behind a sealed portion of the mine.
Located west of Morgantown and formerly owned by Peabody Coal, Federal No. 2 employs about 500 workers. It is a huge operation with advanced longwall mining equipment, and produced nearly 4 million tons of coal in 2009, according to government reports.
Underground coalmines -- especially ones as large as Federal No. 2 -- often have large mined-out areas that companies seal off from active works.
Once such areas are sealed, mine operators no longer have to ventilate them. Methane can build up, but generally it moves out of the explosive range of between 5 and 15 percent. Federal No. 2 is considered a "gassy mine," meaning the geology there naturally releases large amounts of methane.
Over the years, sealed areas received little attention from mine operators or regulators.
That all changed on Jan. 2, 2006, when a methane explosion inside a sealed area of International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Upshur County killed 12 miners, in the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years. Federal and state regulators issued new rules for construction of underground mine seals, and have put more emphasis on testing methane levels inside sealed areas.
On Monday, Wooten said his agency's investigators interviewed Renner and became concerned that falsified safety checks at Federal No. 2 were beyond that one incident and involved more mine managers than just Renner.
"I think the issue may go far beyond that examination," Wooten said. "Examinations may have been made and some samples taken, but the proper readings were not put into the books."
Under federal mine safety law, the only felony criminal charges are for falsifying safety records that mine operators are required to keep.
Wooten said federal authorities launched their own investigation into the Federal No. 2 situation. MSHA officials were looking into the situation, and federal prosecutors sent out a total of five "target letters" warning individuals at the mine they were being investigated, Wooten said. Once that happened, the state's investigation ground to a halt. Witnesses worried about a federal criminal probe declined to talk to state inspectors, he said.
Paul Cranston, an attorney for Renner, said Monday that his client has been cooperating with federal prosecutors "for some time now" in an investigation of safety issues at Federal No. 2.
"We don't know the current status of the U.S. Attorney's investigation and don't want to jeopardize that investigation," Cranston said. But, he added, "Mr. Renner will be filing a civil suit at the appropriate time against the company and certain management personnel that should shed some light on what has occurred here."
Cranston cited an incident in November 2008 where he said Renner "was berated" by his supervisors after he evacuated Federal No. 2 because of bad methane readings. Later, Cranston said, Renner filed another report of bad methane levels and management "destroyed the report."
"John Renner didn't do anything in that coal mine that he wasn't instructed or forced to do," Cranston said. "John Renner was under an enormous amount of pressure."
Caputo and Wooten both said Federal No. 2 was shut down after subsequent methane checks, performed last week, indicated methane in the sealed area was within the explosive range. Wooten said Patriot had submitted at least one plan for fixing the problem, but that MSHA had problems with it and had not yet approved it.
Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for MSHA, responded to questions with a brief prepared statement that confirmed Federal No. 2 had been shut down once on Feb. 12 and again on Feb. 18.
"During examinations, the mine operator found explosive mixtures of gas in a sealed area, prompting an evacuation of the entire mine," the statement said. "Before allowing its workers to go back into the mine, the operator must submit a re-entry plan approved by MSHA. At this time, District 3 officials are meeting with the mine operator to discuss that plan."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.