Monday, December 04, 2006

Kentucky Darby Mine Disaster Report Released: "Nothing Accidental About Deaths In The Mines"

The state of Kentucky has issued a report on the May 20 explosion at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 coal mine in Harlan County, Ky., that killed five miners, Jimmy Lee, 33; Amon “Cotton” Brock, 51; Roy Middleton, 35; George William “Bill” Petra, 49; and Paris Thomas Jr., 53. A sixth miner, Paul Ledford, survived.

According to the report,
The underground blast was triggered by two miners using the torch to remove a metal roof strap intersecting an area of the Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine that employees knew was leaking methane, the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing found.

The seal, intended to keep methane from leaking into the working part of the mine, was improperly constructed; use of the torch in that part of the mine was illegal; and the leaking methane should have been immediately corrected when it was first noted, according to the investigative report.

In addition, the report said, mine superintendent and co-owner Ralph Napier, along with two other company supervisors, admitted to investigators that they were not familiar with approved procedures for constructing the seals.

As a result of their supervisors’ ignorance, the employees who built the seals were not properly trained to do the job, the state concluded. Investigators were told, and physical evidence indicated, that the seals were built from blocks that were not bonded together with an adhesive agent and were not secured to the floor and walls.
Noting that in the last decade, Kentucky has lost more miners than any other staet, a Louisville Courier Journal Editorial describes the lessons of the Darby mine disaster:
The most obvious lessons are these: (1) It's really not "accidents" that kill miners. Rather, they die because laws are broken, regulations are ignored, rules are circumvented. (2) Federal and state regulators should be working in concert, to prevent deaths and injuries. Instead, they sometimes find themselves at cross purposes.

Had Darby been operated according to the rules, the five miners who died almost certainly would be getting ready for Christmas with their families. Improperly installed seals, built by employees whose supervisors didn't know how to do it, and therefore couldn't show their workers how, were part of the problem. So was the illegal use of a cutting torch to remove a metal roof strap. So was the lingering failure to correct a methane gas leak.
The Journal notes that there will be other reports about this and other mine disasters.
But one basic truth has been long apparent: There's nothing accidental about deaths in the mines, and, when it comes to avoiding them, nothing can be left to chance.
Meanwhile, the owners of Kentucky Darby have apparently abandoned the mine. Mine owners already owe $5,110 for 41 violations not related to the disaster, and could owe tens of thousands more in state and MSHA fines. But the fines may be hard to collect:
It could not be determined yesterday whether Kentucky Darby still is an active company.

The company's phone number was disconnected, and co-owner Ralph Napier did not return calls to other numbers.

The other owner of Kentucky Darby, John D. North, could not be located.

Kentucky Darby is listed as an active company with the Kentucky secretary of state's office, but the firm's most recent annual report was June 27.

Advocates say it is not uncommon for coal operators to run different mines under different company names and to close mines and companies and start new ones under new names in other locations.
MSHA and the state claim that the fines will be collected, although MSHA came under criticism after the Sago mine disaster when it was revealed that they had never collected a large percentage of the fines levied on safey violators.