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MSHA Closed Three Massey Mines in Last Month

Just hours before Senate lawmakers met this afternoon for a hearing on mine safety — a hearing inspired by the deadly blast at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va. — the Labor Department revealed that, in response to a series of anonymous complaints, the agency has closed parts of three other Massey mines in West Virginia since March 24. One of those closures occurred on April 9 — four days after the explosion at UBB.

“When our inspectors went in those mines, we found illegal conduct that one would not think [existed] in mines today,”Joe Main, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the Senate lawmakers.

Main said that the agency doesn’t know the identities of those who called in with safety concerns. But the “specificity” of the complaints, he added, seemed to indicate that they were probably Massey miners.

(No one from Massey was asked to appear at Tuesday’s hearing because lawmakers “didn’t want to step on the company’s toes,” in the words of one Senate aide, while the Department of Labor is investigating the Upper Big Branch blast.)

The three projects subject to the surprise raids were: Spartan Mining Co.’s Road Fork #51 Mine in Wyoming County, W.Va.; Inman Energy’s Randolph Mine in Boone County, W.Va.; and Independence Coal Co.’s Cook Mine in Boone County, W.Va. At two of the three projects, inspectors seized the phone lines to prevent mine operators from warning the miners underground that an inspection was imminent.

Details of the infractions follow:

On March 24, 2010, MSHA received an anonymous hazard complaint reporting that Road Fork #51 Mine was running two continuous miners on a single split of air. The complaint also alleged that the operation was mining into the coal face deeper than its approved plan allowed and had experienced several face methane ignitions that were not reported to MSHA. As a result of the complaint and MSHA’s surprise inspection tactics, the company was caught violating several mine standards. Eight 104(d)(2) withdrawal orders were issued for the mine’s failure to maintain the minimum air quantity ventilation requirements, accumulation of combustible materials and roof control violations. Proper ventilation is required by the law to prevent mine explosions and black lung. In one instance, the operator failed to follow the approved roof control plan by illegally mining 8 feet beyond the allowable depth of 20 feet. Miners were withdrawn from these sections, effectively stopping production, until the mine was re-inspected to make sure the problems were fixed.

Also on March 24, 2010, MSHA received an anonymous complaint about hazardous conditions at Randolph Mine just days after a small fire occurred there. Mine inspectors found that the mine operator was not providing adequate ventilation to reduce the risk of explosions and exposure to coal mine dust. The practices were similar to those found at Road Fork # 51 Mine; the operator was also caught taking illegal deep cuts into the coal. Nine 104(d)(2) withdrawal orders were issued for a variety of hazards including inadequate ventilation. Inspectors found that there was no air movement in some sections caused by line curtains (used to control air flow) being rolled up for a distance of 60 feet. There were also inadequate on-shift examinations as well as obvious and extensive accumulation of loose coal up to 20 inches deep. (Loose coal accumulations can provide the fuel for mine fires.) The section foreman was observed operating the continuous mining machine with the ventilation line curtain 29 feet from the working face where the plan required a maximum of 20 feet. Rock dust – a critical explosion protective measure – had not been applied in seven entries to the required 40-foot distance. Miners were withdrawn from the affected area while the violations were being abated.

On April 9, 2010, following the tragic explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine, MSHA received a hazard complaint about Independence Coal Co.’s Cook Mine regarding water in the escapeway. Upon inspection of the mine, six 104(d)(1) orders were issued for taking illegal deep cuts of 30 feet into the coal face when the plan allowed a maximum of 20 feet, blockage of the primary escapeway with water, inadequate pre-shift and on-shift examinations, and excessive widths beyond the roof control plan parameters. MSHA inspectors also found that numerous roof bolts were sheared off and damaged, increasing the risk of hazardous roof falls.

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