The agency said Thursday afternoon that the inspection of the Seng Creek Powellton operation in Boone County last week found that the mine was taking illegal cuts into the coal seam, was operating without proper ventilation and had not completed mandated air readings.
MSHA assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said the findings were even more in the spotlight with the six-month anniversary of April 5’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion being marked this week.
“Rather than learn from this tragedy, there are mine operators that continue the ‘catch me if you can’ tactics, ignoring basic mining laws, and placing their workers at great risk of injury, illness and mine explosions,” he said.
“They know that MSHA cannot be at the mines all the time, and miners pay the ultimate price.”
Main noted that the federal regulator would “use the full measure of the law” to deal with those operations that refuse to follow safety and health laws, and Powellton’s closure orders reinforce the need for new regulations that will halt such practices.
MSHA said that the inspection, conducted by three of its staff during the evening shift on September 28, was a follow-up to reports it had received that Powellton had been taking deep cuts. The illegal cuts were located in the mine’s No. 1 section.
“Although deep cuts can greatly boost productivity, they also can increase float coal dust accumulations underground,” the agency said.
“Thus, such cuts must first be approved by MSHA.”
Additionally, inspectors found “many areas” in Powellton’s working section that had inadequate ventilation while the excessive cuts were being taken.
The mine foreman admitted to regulators that he had not been taking air readings during the work shift, and he also had allowed fly pads (backup curtains) to be rolled up against the mine roof, which provides easier access to mining equipment and short circuits the mine’s ventilation.
“In one particular area, suspended coal dust was so thick it was difficult to determine the proximity of the massive continuous mining machine,” MSHA officials said.
According to federal records, the Seng Creek Powellton Mine has received 264 citations, orders and safeguards since January 2009.
The 11 orders and one citation issued last week were abated by the company via additional training as well as the installation of ventilation controls and roof supports.
The single citation, it noted, was for the mine’s failure to ensure safety glasses were being worn by miners.
Massey spokesperson Jeff Gillenwater told ILN late Thursday afternoon that the situation was “very frustrating and totally unacceptable” to the company.
“The president of the company had just had a meeting with all his superintendents the day before this incident, in which he again covered the fact that the company expects its miners to mine coal in accordance with the law,” he said, adding that the section foreman was told the same thing by his superintendent just before going underground September 28.
“This training was simply violated. We will redouble our efforts.”
Gillenwater confirmed that the company had immediately discharged the foreman as well as two hourly workers. Additionally, nine more miners were suspended for three days.
“While we disagree with MSHA's handling of the UBB investigation, we appreciate MSHA's blitz for uncovering conduct that we did not uncover ourselves,” he said.
“We welcome any effort – whether by MSHA, the state or Massey – that uncovers such conduct.”