The entrance to Brody Mine No. 1 in Wharton, W.Va., was closed after two workers died. / Craig Cunningham Charleston Daily Mail via AP
Federal regulators last October put the West Virginia coal mine where two workers died Monday on a rare list of the most serious safety violations after inspections showed repeated health and safety violations.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited Patriot Coal's Brody Mine No. 1 for a "pattern of violations," the most serious designation a mine can receive before safety officials ask a federal judge to shut it down. A federal inspection at Brody last fall found 253 "significant and substantial" violations and a list of MSHA citations accessed Tuesday by USA TODAY on the agency's website ran to 165 pages.
"This is a mine with a very bad record," said Celeste Monforton, a mine safety advocate and former MSHA policy adviser who now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health.
The mine "not only had a lot of very serious violations identified by inspectors," Monforton said. It also had an injury rate "much higher than the national average." Last year, Brody had 35 injuries, 208% higher than the national average, according to Mine Safety and Health News, an industry publication.
In a statement Tuesday, the mine's owner, Patriot Coal, said miners Eric Legg, 48, and Gary Hensley, 46, were killed. Mike Day, Patriot's executive vice president of operations, said the company is "fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies to investigate this incident."
The mine, near Wharton, W.Va., has operated since 2006. Last year it received 479 health and safety citations and faces $3.2 million in proposed fines.
The law allowing "Pattern of Violations" citations dates to 1977, but MSHA began citing mines just last year. Only three mines, including Brody No. 1, have been cited under the provision.
"It's very rare - if you're placed on a 'pattern,' it's clearly a troubled mine," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official and mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky. "It's a mine that has a poor safety history and generally poor safety practices."
A mining company can challenge the designation - and Brody's owner has challenged it. A hearing on the case was scheduled for May 22. If the "Pattern of Violations" citation is upheld by a judge, Oppegard said, "that would by definition qualify it as among the worst of the worst in the country."
In its 2013 annual report, Patriot said many of the violations took place before it bought the mine in December 2012 and that safety since then has improved. It also said "all former officers and key mine-level managers" at Brody Mine No. 1 were replaced shortly after the purchase and that Patriot had submitted a plan to improve safety on Sept. 6, 2013. It noted that MSHA approved the plan 11 days later.
Based in St. Louis, Patriot owns 10 active mine and coal preparation facilities in West Virginia and Kentucky. The company says it controls "approximately 1.8 billion tons of proven and probable coal reserves" and last year sold 21.5 million tons of coal.
After 29 miners were killed in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia owned by Massey Energy, the Obama administration began surprise "impact inspections" in which seven or eight inspectors in effect take over a mine to prevent workers from hiding deficiencies, Oppegard said. "They try to essentially catch the operator in the process of mining coal - and it's really the only time in which MSHA will get a true picture" of the mine's operation.
Informally called "blitzing," it has become a regular part of federal inspections, Oppegard said. According to Mine Safety and Health News, Brody Mine No. 1 was targeted in an April 2010 "blitz" after the Upper Big Branch explosion and again in October 2012 - both before Patriot bought the mine.
In its statement, Patriot said the two workers were killed in a "severe coal burst" during "retreat mining operations." That's the process in which workers extract the last coal from an area by collapsing coal pillars that are holding up the roof as they "retreat" backward. Also called a "planned roof fall," it's "extremely dangerous even under the best of conditions," Oppegard said. "It's ultra-hazardous because you're intentionally trying to get the roof to fall."
He said the combination of this technique and unfavorable safety ratings is "a red flag" for miners. "If you have a mine that's retreat mining, that has been placed on a 'pattern' and is also the subject of a 'blitz' inspection, that's a dangerous situation there."
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