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ICG safety record in W.Va. poor

All of International Coal Group Inc.’s underground mines in West Virginia have accident rates that are worse than the national average, according to a new review of federal mine safety data.

The operations run by the owners of the Sago Mine include a Harrison County mine whose foreman went to jail for lying to investigators about a 1999 roof fall that killed a miner, records show.

Anker West Virginia Mining Co., an ICG subsidiary, has owned half of the Fairfax No. 3 Mine since at least April 1997, according to records at the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

In October 2003, Fairfax No. 3 foreman Robert L. Carter Jr. was sentenced to four months in jail and three years probation, federal court records show. Carter pleaded guilty in February 2003 to charges that he lied to MSHA during its probe of a 1999 roof fall that killed miner Jack White.

Twelve days ago, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine, a small underground operation that Anker runs in the hills south of Buckhannon. A dozen miners died and another was critically injured, making the Jan. 2 blast the worst coal-mining accident in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

In each of the past two years, Sago recorded an accident rate that was nearly three times the national average. The mine was cited for more than 200 violations, including more than a dozen that alleged “unwarrantable failure” by mine management to observe basic safety guidelines.

ICG President Ben Hatfield said last week that ICG “will not attempt to explain or defend the violation history of this mine prior to the time we gained management control.”

ICG announced its plans to buy Anker in March 2005, and finalized the deal on Nov. 18. A management agreement was signed in June.

One West Virginia mine was officially taken over by ICG in October 2004, according to federal mine records.

That mine is the Birch River Mine, a strip mine in Webster County.

Under ICG ownership, the mine’s nonfatal accident rate got worse in 2005, increasing from 2.17 injuries per 200,000 hours worked to 3.25 injuries per 200,000 hours worked, according to MSHA data. MSHA and other mine safety officials measure accident rates in terms of incidents per 200,000 hours worked, because that is roughly the time that 100 full-time miners would work in a year.

In both years, Birch River’s injury rates were worse than the national average for similar mines, according to MSHA data. The 2005 rate was twice the national average.

While ICG officials want no blame for any safety problems at Anker mines before the Nov. 18 closing date of their purchase, ICG’s founder, New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr., has controlled Anker for about five years.

Ross began his buyout in October 1999 and by 2001 had acquired controlling interest in Anker, according to corporate disclosures and other records.

All other former Anker underground mines in West Virginia now owned by ICG have accident rates that are just as bad — or in some cases worse — than the Sago Mine. The company’s five relatively small underground mines in the state recorded accident rates higher than the national average in recent years, according to a review of MSHA data conducted late this week.

A surface mine recorded an accident rate worse than average and another surface mine gained a record better than average, the MSHA records show.

The worst example of an ICG mine appears to be Anker Coal’s Sentinel Mine, an underground operation in Barbour County. In 2004 and 2005, the Sentinel Mine recorded injury rates of 6.5 and 4.4 times the national average for similar mines, according to the MSHA data.

The Stony River Mine in Grant County has not performed much better. Last year, the underground operation recorded a nonfatal injury rate of nearly 28 injuries per 200,000 hours worked. That compares to the national average of 6.54 injuries per 200,000 hours worked.

In its filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, ICG notes that it also is part of a joint venture, Sycamore Group LLC, with a company called Emily Gibson Coal Co. That joint venture operates what ICG now calls the Sycamore No. 1 Mine. The SEC filing notes that the operation previously was called the Fairfax No. 3 Mine.

Previously, Anker said in its SEC filings that it owned one-half of the operation, located about 10 miles west of Clarksburg in Harrison County.

A man who answered the phone at the No. 3 Mine on Friday confirmed that Fairfax No. 3 and the Sycamore No. 1 Mine are the same operation.

Three years ago, about two-dozen workers had to flee the Fairfax No. 3 Mine to escape an early morning fire.

In a 28-page report, MSHA said the Sept. 16, 2002, fire started in the mine’s conveyor belt system. The report, released in September 2003, also said the discovery of the fire, firefighting and evacuation of the mine were delayed because the mine’s fire-detection system was disabled by an electrical short circuit.

The Fairfax Mine was cited for three violations and paid about $2,100 in fines.

Three years before the fire, 47-year-old Jack White of Worthington went to work at about 10:30 p.m. White was on the midnight shift at Fairfax No. 3.

He was a roof bolter, and his supervisor, mine foreman Robert L. Carter Jr., was running a continuous-mining machine. Under the company’s approved mining plan, Carter was supposed to make only 25-foot cuts into the coal seam. If he cut farther than that, a cave-in could injure or kill workers in the mine.

At about 3 a.m. on July 22, 1999, Carter made a much larger cut — at least 38 feet, investigators concluded. White went into the area to install roof bolts. But it was too late. At about 3:15 a.m., two other workers discovered White pinned between his roof-bolting machine and a large rock. He was declared dead about 90 minutes later.

When White was found, other workers called Carter to the scene. According to MSHA investigators, Carter told the workers that “it was a deep cut” and that he “was going to jail.”

After other workers removed White, Carter stayed behind with another miner, Charles Garrison. Garrison told investigators that Carter asked him to help install additional roof bolts, to conceal the depth of the cut. Garrison refused.

After the roof fall, the Fairfax Mine was fined $135,000, which MSHA later reduced to $47,500, records show.

In September 2002, Carter was indicted on federal charges that he obstructed MSHA investigators and lied to inspectors during the inquiry. In a deal with prosecutors, Carter pleaded guilty to lying to the MSHA investigators.

Just a few months before Carter was indicted, The Associated Press quoted Fairfax No. 3 general manager Jim Simpson in an article about a nationwide increase in coal mining deaths in 2002. The AP paraphrased Simpson as saying that, “more coal operators need to bring safety inspectors in for refreshers. Two meetings at his mine helped remind workers of the dangers of their jobs — dangers to which they sometimes become too accustomed.”

The AP quoted Simpson directly: “When they showed the blood-stained ground where that miner’s arm was ripped off ... that hit home. They need to be reminded of how to do the job right.”

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


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