Two Miners Killed at WV Operation

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 @ 03:05 PM gHale

Two miners died Monday night in Boone County, WV, while performing an especially dangerous type of coal removal, at a Patriot Coal operation where federal officials said last year they would increase enforcement because of a pattern of serious violations and unreported worker injuries.

Continuous mining machine operators Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight, and roof bolter Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, died while working at Patriot’s Brody Mine No. 1 near Wharton, WV, state and federal officials said. There were no other injuries and all other miners were accounted for, officials said Tuesday.

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The miners were performing “retreat mining” — in which workers back out of the mine, removing coal pillars left to hold up the roof — when pressures from the ground above the mine caused a sudden release of coal and rock material from the mine roof or wall, according to preliminary accounts from federal and state regulators and the company. The incident occurred around 8:30 p.m., according to Chelsea Ruby, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

A Patriot Coal official called the state’s industrial accident hot line at 8:47 p.m. Monday to report two miners ended up entrapped at the operation, said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The initial report “indicated a rock fall,” Messina said, and workers on the surface “had communicated with the miners” underground.

“Rescue efforts later determined that the miners did not survive, and the miners’ bodies have been recovered,” said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

A prepared statement from MSHA referred to the incident as a “ground failure,” while the state mine safety office’s initial report called it a “coal outburst.”

Both descriptions suggest the incident was not simply a roof or rock fall. An outburst, or a “bump,” is a sudden release of the roof, wall or even floor rock into an open area of the mine. Outbursts are different from roof falls. A roof fall is just what it sounds like: Pieces of roof rock come apart and fall. Outbursts occur because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down.

In a statement later Tuesday morning, Patriot Coal spokeswoman Janine Orf said the incident was “a severe coal burst as the mine was conducting retreat mining operations.”

Various studies have found that coal outbursts or bumps can be especially hard to prevent. But, the studies over many years have also shown, they are not natural occurrences and can be avoided or the risk reduced with proper mine planning and compliance with that planning.

“Inadequate mine planning or incorrect design can increase the occurrence of bumps in underground coal mines,” said one 1991 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said that retreat mining or “pulling pillars” is “the most dangerous type of mining.”

“Compliance with the pillar removal plan is essential,” Oppegard said. “The plan must be followed religiously because even the slightest deviation can have devastating consequences. In almost every retreat mining fatality that I’m aware of, failure to comply with the pillar plan was the cause of the accident.”

The Brody deaths are the first coal-mining fatalities in West Virginia since one in mid-January. So far this year, five coal miners have died on the job nationwide, and the two at Brody make three deaths in 2014 in West Virginia, according to MSHA.

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