"I suspect that belt fires are a relatively common occurrence underground, and rather than being trained to evacuate, miners are conditioned to keep working while somebody is given the task of trying to put it out," Stanley said. "At Aracoma, we were able to confirm that two belt fires occurred in the days before the fatal fire, including one in the very same location that revealed the litany of problems that condemned Don and Elvis to death.
"No evacuation occurred in either occasion," Stanley said. "Instead, they just kept running coal. It sounds like that same cycle is taking place at Road Fork. Hopefully, the federal intervention will break that cycle, but I'm not holding my breath."
MSHA investigators found inoperable smoke detectors and fire suppression systems, inadequate conveyor belt maintenance, and multiple accumulations of explosive coal dust as deep as 18 inches, according to the MSHA inspection records. Federal inspectors alleged that mine managers who performed company safety checks often did not report obvious safety hazards in required record books and did not correct dangerous conditions that they did list in those books.
Goodwin said his office takes "reports such as the one from Road Fork 51 very seriously" and intends "to closely review" MSHA's inspection findings for potential criminal violations.
Already, Goodwin's office is in the midst of trying to move its criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster up the ladder of former Massey mine management and corporate executives. In December, prosecutors agreed not to bring corporate criminal charges against any former Massey subsidiaries or against Alpha, but did not give up the ability to charge individuals found responsible for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
As part of the deal with Goodwin, Alpha was to implement a plan to ensure that each of its underground mines "has the personnel and resources necessary to meet all legal requirements relating to incombustible material and to prevent accumulations of coal dust and loose coal."
On top of the three major coal-dust violations found at the Road Fork Mine, MSHA inspectors also issued 18 other dust-related violations at other Alpha mines targeted by the inspection sweep, said agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.