Monday, January 15, 2007

Miners Gave Their Lives For The Last Little Bit Of Coal

I wrote yesterday about the death of two coal miners, James D. Thomas, 48, of North Tazewell, Va., and utilityman Pete Poindexter, 33, of Rock. in a roof collapse at the at Brooks Run Mining Co.’s Cucumber Mine in McDowell County, West Virginia.

The company, as you might imagine, is feeling bad:
In a prepared statement, Brooks Run said a “localized section of the mine roof unexpectedly collapsed and fell on the miners.”

“We’re extremely saddened by this tragic accident,” said Randy McMillion, Brooks Run’s president. “Right now our full attention is directed toward attending to the miners’ families and their coworkers, as well as providing our full cooperation to the ongoing investigation.”(emphasis added)
These "unexpected" tragedies are just so...unexpected. After all these centuries, gravity never ceases to surprise.

It turns out, of course, that while Brooks Run hadn't "expected" the roof to crush Thomas and Poindexter that day, like most workplace hazards, the hazards of "retreat mining" were anything but unknown or unexpected.
In a November 2001 report, then-Gov. Bob Wise was encouraged to closely examine — and possibly ban or much more tightly restrict — “retreat mining.”

During this especially dangerous procedure, miners remove the last bits of coal possible from pillars meant to hold up the mine roof, or remove entire pillars.

This is done as miners are moving out of a section, and mine roofs are expected to fall as miners pull the pillars.

Miners were pulling pillars Saturday morning at Brooks Run Mining Co.’s Cucumber Mine in McDowell County when a roof fall killed two employees.
So just how "unexpected" were these deaths?
Between 1978 and 1986, 67 roof-fall deaths — about one-third of the total — occurred during retreat mining, according to a government study.

Between 1989 and 1996, pulling pillars accounted for 10 percent of underground coal production, according to a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. At the same time, the practice accounted for 25 percent of underground coal mining deaths, the NIOSH report said.

Between 1996 and 2005, at least 13 of the 63 roof fall deaths nationwide occurred during retreat mining, according to a Gazette analysis of MSHA records. Seven of those 13 deaths occurred in West Virginia, the analysis showed.
The 2001 report was written by former Clinton Administration MSHA director Davit McAteer. (McAteer also headed up current West Virginia governor Manchin's investigations of last year's Sago and Alma mine disasters.) McAteer
cautioned that pillaring is “an especially dangerous extraction practice which should be critically reviewed and/or significantly revised, with adequate requirements and criteria drawn up to provide protection to the miners engaged in such techniques.

“New standards of safety and health precautions need to be developed, including engineering criteria for mining in previously disturbed coal beds and seams, and these new standards must be applied before such methods are approved by state or federal regulations,” wrote McAteer, who headed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during President Clinton’s administration.

McAteer went on to recommend that retreat mining be “very carefully reviewed and critically examined” to determine whether its approval should be continued.

Wise acted on some of McAteer’s recommendations, such as more closely scrutinizing coal contractors and increasing fines for safety violations. But Wise took no action on retreat mining.

Gov. Joe Manchin has also not addressed the issue in his mine-safety reform efforts, either in a bill passed in one day last year or in his latest legislation proposed last week.
More on mine safety problems here.