Failing to do a better job following mine safety laws poses a greater threat to the coal industry than even proposals to limit carbon emissions from power plants, the chief executive of International Coal Group said Wednesday.
The aftermath of deadly explosions such as the April 5 blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch and at ICG's Sago Mine on Jan. 2, 2006, make it clear that mine operators are exposed to greater public scrutiny than in the past, Hatfield said. Besides the media, the industry faces pressure from shareholders, banks, electric companies and even steel manufacturers, he said at an industry conference.
"My advice is to take a fresh look at how we operate our coal mines,'' Hatfield said. "We will position our mines to succeed.''
Kevin Crutchfield, chief executive of Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources, said coal operators need to involve every employee in safety and change the industry's macho culture.
"For years in this industry, it was considered kind of a manly thing to do to cut corners and take chances,'' Crutchfield said.
Alpha relies on an anonymous system that allows employees to fill out comment cards noting safe and unsafe behavior at its mines. Crutchfield said the company gets tens of thousands of comments.
"Is it working? We have made great progress. We have a long way to go,'' he said.
Scott Depot-based ICG has been singled out for significant safety violations during a five-month inspection blitz of troubled U.S. coal mines by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The blitz followed the Upper Big Branch explosion, the worst at a U.S. coal mine since 1970.
ICG is responding by creating 60 positions to make sure each of its mines complies with health and safety laws and to improve maintenance, including coating tunnels with pulverized stone to prevent explosions and fires, Hatfield said. The Scott Depot-based company is currently filling the jobs.
"Despite these efforts, we continue to suffer setbacks,'' Hatfield said.
In August, MSHA publicized the fact that it had cited ICG for 43 violations found at the Classic Mine in eastern Kentucky and temporarily ordered the company to idle the operation until some of the problems were fixed.
Even hard working employees "still make errors in judgment,'' Hatfield said.