CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the morning of Jan. 23, state inspectors discovered a series of nearly identical violations on four coal-mining cars at Metinvest's Affinity Mine in Raleigh County.
Sideboards on four of the mine's shuttle cars were so high that the drivers had trouble seeing where they were going, state inspection reports show.
"The operator's visibility is being compromised by the height of the sideboards," said four notices of violation written in a 40-minute period by an inspector from the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
Three weeks later, on Feb. 12, state inspectors found a related problem. Workers had piled supplies -- bags of rock dust, ventilation curtains and mining machine bits -- on top of two other vehicles called scoops, so that the visibility of their operators was "impaired," state records show.
A week later, at about 7:15 p.m. on Feb. 19, shuttle car operator John Myles was hit by a scoop as he worked shoveling coal debris away from Affinity's mine walls. Myles, 44, of Hilltop, was knocked out and taken to Raleigh County General Hospital, where he died.
At about 5 p.m. the next day, a state inspector cited Metinvest's Pocahontas Coal subsidiary with another visibility violation -- again for allegedly having mine supplies piled so high on a scoop that the equipment operator's visibility was "limited."
In a Feb. 20 inspection report, the state noted, "this practice was reviewed during a safety meeting" with all evening shift employees on Feb. 18, the evening before Myles was killed.
"This violation is of a serious nature and involves an extraordinarily high degree of negligence," said the latest inspection report, written a day after the fatality.
Investigators haven't yet said if an overloaded scoop with limited visibility played a role in the accident that killed Myles, let alone if the specific piece of equipment cited on Feb. 20 was involved in the death.
Eugene White, director of the state mine safety office, said his investigators reported that bags of rock dust were piled on top of the scoop involved in Myles' death. But, White said, more investigation -- including a reenactment of the incident -- would be needed to determine if the supplies blocked the operator's visibility.
White said his inspectors have been looking more closely at visibility issues with underground mining equipment since a July 2012 death where a miner was hit by a scoop. In that incident, at Arch Coal's Beckley Pocahontas Mine in Raleigh County, investigators found that bags of rock dust stacked on top of the scoop reduced the operator's visibility.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, White said he couldn't explain why the Affinity Mine would have had more problems with equipment visibility after a safety talk that focused on the issue.
"I don't know what they were thinking," White said. "I feel like our inspectors did their job -- they inspected and they talked about it in a safety meeting. I don't know why people do what they do."
But independent mine safety experts say the Affinity Mine citations, made public Monday and Tuesday by state regulators, raised questions about whether the government is taking adequate enforcement actions against mine operators -- and whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's call for a "safety stand down" will really protect miners' lives.
"It really belies the use of these safety meetings and the governor's 'stand down,' " said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. "Clearly, in this case, the only thing the operator would understand would be enforcement coming down with force and making them fix the problem."
McAteer said violations like the ones at Affinity simply shouldn't happen, and are the product of management and workers trying to cut corners and save time in the interest of keeping coal production moving.
"If this a known risk? Yes. Is it something that can be easily fixed? Absolutely," McAteer said.
Jennifer Guthrie, a spokeswoman for Pocahontas Coal, declined to answer questions about specific violations at the Affinity Mine. She said company officials "take all violations seriously, and are actively addressing their root causes."
"Last week, our management reached out to Affinity employees through a series of small-group, town-hall meetings," Guthrie said in a prepared statement. "The discussions were frank and mutually beneficial. We will continue to maintain open lines of communication with our work force. We will continue our ongoing efforts to implement a safety-first culture."
Myles was the second coal miner killed at the Affinity Mine in a two-week period this month.
On Feb. 7, 43-year-old Edward Finney of Bluefield, Va., was killed when he was crushed under a hoist used to move supplies between the surface and the underground mine tunnels.
In that incident, Finney and other workers were unloading trash from the scoop bucket onto the hoist for removal from the mine, according to a preliminary state report.
"The scoop operator positioned the scoop bucket onto the elevator to drop off a tray loaded with trash," the state report said. "When the elevator unexpectedly started going up toward the surface, the scoop was pulled upward by the elevator. The operator came out of the scoop, the scoop broke loose from the elevator, and fell, crushing the operator."
After Finney's death, the company installed a new switch on the hoist.
But on Feb. 19, a state inspector found that it was "not properly installed," but was instead rigged with a piece of wood and a rusty bolt. "This is of a serious nature and involves an extraordinarily high degree of negligence," the state inspector wrote.
The inspector also found that the hoist was not being properly maintained, saying that a front plate was missing that was designed to "help ensure safe loading and unloading."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.