Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Judge: Company Did No Wrong In Killing 13 Miners

On Sept. 23, 2001 two explosions ripped through the Jim Walters mine in Brookwood, Alabama, killing thirteen workers, many of whom were trying to assist four co-workers injured in the initial blast. MSHA fined Jim Walter Resources Inc. $435,000 for major problems. On Tuesday, administrative law judge David F. Barbour threw out most of the fine, requiring Jim Walter to pay $3,000 in fines for minor violations. According to the judge, the government did not prove wrondoing by the company.

That was news to MSHA which accused the company of lacking proper roof supports, improper training and inadequate efforts to prevent the buildup of volatile coal dust and gas.

The United Mineworkers conducted a year long, 100-plus-page report on the disaster, finding that the explosions resulted from a breakdown in the federal Mine Safety and Health Act's (Mine Act) checks and balances designed to protect miners' safety.
he UMWA determined the accident occurred when part of the mine's roof fell on top of and short-circuited a 6-ton scoop battery, generating sufficient heat to ignite methane. The union alleges the roof fall resulted from the mine operator's failure to adequately support adverse roof conditions. Following the first explosion, four miners were injured (including one unable to move) and ventilation controls were damaged, allowing methane gas to build up in the No. 4 section. JWR's emergency response was deficient and failed to protect and evacuate the miners. Twelve miners, who responded to the accident without necessary information and direction, were caught in the second explosion about 55 minutes after the first blast. They all perished along with the previously injured and immobile miner.

The investigation found that float coal dust, which had not been adequately controlled, helped fuel the second explosion.

"MSHA's District 11 allowed many violations to languish well after the required abatement dates had passed and kept fines low by, for example, citing that only one miner would be injured or killed by most violations," said UMWA Safety & Health Administrator Joe Main, who led the investigation called for by Roberts. "Since the mid-1990s, numerous complaints have been filed by miners and the union about the lax enforcement of the Mine Act by MSHA's District 11 office in Alabama."

"Our investigation identified several reforms needed to improve health and safety protections at coal mines," concluded Roberts. "We urge immediate action by MSHA and the mining industry to take steps to make all mines safer and healthier."
The Mineworkers called on MSHA to re-open the investigation and accused the agency of ignoring the testimony of miners who had complained about pre-existing hazardous conditions in the mine and downplaying JWR management's role in examining the mine and its ventilation problems.

The Mineworkers were angry:

"This decision is a bitter disappointment for our union and the families of those who lost their lives on that tragic day four years ago," said Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America International.

In a statement, Roberts said the judge "found that MSHA simply did not do its job when it came to proving its case" against Jim Walter Resources.

"It's high time MSHA started devoting more funding, more scientific and forensic expertise and more institutional concern to its investigations," Roberts said.

(Full UMWA report here.)