MAC: Mines and Communities

Inspector Who Tried To Shut Mine Before Fatal Fire Was Overruled

Published by MAC on 2006-04-24

Inspector Who Tried to Shut Mine Before Fatal Fire Was Overruled

by Mike Hall

24th April 2006

Just days before a Jan. 19 fire killed two coal miners at the Alma No. 1 Mine operated by Aracoma Mining Co. in West Virginia, a federal inspector tried to close down a portion of the mine because of a fire risk along the conveyer where the blaze began, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported April 23. But, the paper reports, he was overruled by supervisors.

Also, late last week, two more coal miners were killed on the job. Rich McKnight, 45, of Cumberland, Ky., was crushed April 21 by a machine he was working on in a Harlan County mine. David Chad Bolen, 28, of Harold, Ky., was killed April 20 in a roof fall at a Pike County mine. (Go to for more information on the latest deaths.)

The deaths boosted this year's toll in the nation's coal mines to 26 fatalities. During the same period last year, three coal miners had been killed. There were 22 coal mine fatalities in all of 2005.

At Aracoma, the demand for production outweighed concerns by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector Minness Justice that coal and coal dust along the belt line had accumulated to a danger point and that the conveyer beltâs fire-suppression system was not adequate, Danny Woods, another MSHA employee, told the Post-Gazette.

"He was just told to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal," Woods told the paper, which added:

"Conditions on the belt line were considered especially dangerous because MSHA had allowed Aracoma to install the conveyor on the same route through which air was fed to the miners farther inside, meaning a fire was at risk of sending smoke toward occupied areas of the mine instead of to the outside."

The paper reported that Aracoma was granted a waiver to install the belt line along the airway route with several safety conditions attached, including installation of an early warning fire detection system that worked by monitoring carbon monoxide levels. But the Post-Gazette said:

"State and federal officials who spoke on condition they not be named also believe someone inside the mine office repeatedly reset the monitor in the early stages of the fire Jan. 19, effectively short-circuiting the alarm that should have gone out to the men inside. According to the same sources, someone later attempted to delete records of the early alerts from the mineâs computer system, but computer technicians brought in by MSHA investigators retrieved the deleted data."

In response to the Post-Gazette's report, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has called for a bipartisan congressional investigation into the Bush administration's enforcement of the nation's mine safety laws.

"There is no way that the Bush administration can be trusted to investigate itself in this very, very serious matter," said Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over worker safety issues. "If this article is accurate, and MSHA knew about the risks at that mine, then the agency's actions are totally inexcusable. We need to determine if this is, in fact, what happened."

The fatal Aracoma fire occurred 17 days after a methane explosion killed 12 miners and seriously injured another one at International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Upshur County, W. Va. At Sago, increased methane levels were detected in and around the sealed-off areas where the blast is suspected of occurring.

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