Friday, November 24, 2006

Aracoma Mine: Forgetting The Lessons From The Dead?

New information has emerged on the causes of the fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine last January that killed two miners. Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reports that because of understaffing, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training did not complete its sheduled inspection of the mine in the quarter preceding the fire. By law, West Virginia mines are supposed to be thoroughly inspected four times a year. In addition the state inspector was not able to see many parts of the mine because Massey, the mine's owner, refused to provide transportation to the inspector, in violation of state law.

A report earlier this month found that a missing wall contributed to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield
The missing ventilation wall, called a stopping, allowed smoke from a conveyor belt fire to enter the Aracoma Mine’s primary escape tunnel.

By law, such escape tunnels are supposed to be kept isolated from conveyor belt tunnels because of the dangers of fire and smoke that belts create in underground mines.

During the Jan. 19 fire, a crew of workers hit smoke during an attempted escape and had to find an alternate route
Brag and Hatfield became separated from the group and died of smoke inhalation.

In another Gazette article, Ward reveals that two Massey foremen knew about the missing wall before the fire. The two foremen, in addition to a number of other Massey supervisors received citations from state authorities for not evacuating the mine in a timely manner, allowing non-certified workers to perform safety examinations in the mine, failing to provide an accurate mine map, and not reporting the fire to state authorities for two-and-a-half hours.

Finally, a Charleston Gazette editorial explains how overlooking mine safety laws means we're forgetting the lessons from those who have died in the mines:
Richard Stickler, new head of MSHA, talks smart and tough on mine safety. He says America has more safety laws than it now uses, that it has tools to shut down unsafe mines, get the attention of bad operators and straighten them out. Also, Congress has added money to MSHA’s budget to restore inspectors that the agency needs. We hope Stickler carries out these strong plans.

Every safety rule was passed because of miners’ deaths. Every law about ventilation, roof supports, spreading rock dust to prevent explosions, building walls to block poisonous fumes — all were created after miners died by tens or hundreds.

Each time a mine operator or the larger society, represented by state and federal regulators, fails to practice these lessons from the past, they forget the people who died before.
More mine stories here.