Despite crackdown, nine men have died in U.S. mines since Upper Big Branch

By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 4, 2010; 10:58 PM

In the weeks after the worst U.S. coal-mining accident in 40 years, federal safety inspectors showed up repeatedly at a mine that snakes under the West Virginia hills: Loveridge No. 22.

On July 26, an inspector cited the mine for concerns that walls might crumble. He noted that this made 87 citations for problems with the roof or walls over two years.

Three days later, a chunk of rock 16 feet long and 41/2 feet high broke away from the mine's wall, according to a federal accident report. Miner Jessie Adkins, 39, was caught beneath it.

He died before he got to a hospital.

Adkins is one of nine men who have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5. This string of accidents has revealed key shortfalls in a push by the Obama administration to improve mine safety.

Federal regulators have increased their inspections at 89 coal mines with poor safety records, including Loveridge. They have also upped their use of orders to shut down mines until safety problems are fixed.

But despite their efforts, five men were killed by heavy machinery; four were killed by falling rock. They died in mines where safety citations had increased about 31 percent after the Upper Big Branch blast.

For safety experts and miners' families, these recent disasters tell a familiar story: Enforcement efforts have been hampered by a backlogged appeals system and the lack of penalty for repeat offenders. The new federal crackdown still couldn't ensure safe conditions underground.

"The government should have seen that the mine took care of their violations," said Adkins's mother, Joan Adkins. "If they would've, maybe my son would still be here today."

The nine miners died in accidents at eight mines, spread across a swath of coal country from northern West Virginia to southern Illinois. The dead include Michael Carter, 28, a mine worker for only two years when a slab of rock 10 feet thick fell on him in Kentucky, and veterans such as James Robie Erwin, 55, who was three years from retirement after 36 years underground.

He was hit by a motorized vehicle inside West Virginia's Ruby Energy mine.

"He just told me he was in a lot of pain, and he said, 'I love you, Sheila. Pray,' " said Sheila Erwin, his wife, who met the ambulance carrying her husband to a medical helicopter. "I said, 'I love you, too, Robie. And I am praying.' "

He died at a hospital 11 days later. "I never, ever heard him speak again," Sheila Erwin said.

Statistically, the government counts their deaths together with those of four men who died in accidents on the surface - driving trucks or operating machinery near mine entrances.

That total, 13 fatal accidents in six months, means that the death rate since the Upper Big Branch disaster has been about the same as it has over the past 15 years. Coal mining remains a dangerous profession, although far fewer people die today than before 1969, when Congress passed broad reforms: In 1968, about 26 miners died every month. In all, more than 104,000 have died in accidents since 1900.

Before the blast, the Upper Big Branch mine had been repeatedly cited for safety problems and investigators recently reported finding high levels of explosive dust inside.

Massey Energy, a Richmond-based coal giant that owns the mine, said the evidence was not reliable: Federal regulators' "narrow-minded focus on compromised coal dust evidence is doing a disservice" to the miners' families, the company said in a statement.

After the Upper Big Branch explosion, federal regulators increased by 20 percent their use of orders that require mines to close temporarily, shutting off valuable coal production.

They also began what they call impact inspections to increase their presence in 89 of the country's roughly 2,000 coal mines. At these sites, chosen because of their record of poor safety or health issues, inspectors sometimes arrive in unmarked cars. They at times have seized phone systems upon arrival to prevent officials from warning miners underground.

"There are a number of mine operators who think they've got us figured out. So we are changing the dynamics here," said Joseph A. Main, a longtime safety expert at the United Mine Workers of America union, whom President Obama appointed to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2009.

Main said the deaths since the Upper Big Branch disaster demonstrate that some mining companies are still not addressing safety problems, but rather waiting for federal inspectors to notice them.

"There is a problem in the mining industry. They want MSHA to fire-boss their mines," he said. A "fire boss," in mining parlance, is someone who inspects the mine for safety risks.

He said the government crackdown was meant to demonstrate that this was no longer a tenable strategy: "At some point, that probably made financial sense, but we are changing that. I would say it never made moral sense."

No safety guarantee

Most of the nine deaths are still under federal investigation. It's not clear that federal oversight could have prevented all - or any - of them. In two cases, the miners were controlling the machines that accidentally crushed them.

"I wish I could say to you with certainty that you're going to prevent [all mine deaths] in the future. History has shown us that that's unfortunately not always the case," said Bruce Watzman, a senior vice president at the National Mining Association, a trade group. "I don't think that a fatality at a mine reflects a failing on the part of the agency."

The Loveridge mine, in which Adkins was killed, was owned by Consol Energy. Chief Operating Officer Nicholas Deluliis said the citations were not proof that the mine had a problem with its roof and walls before the accident.

"Violations for roof and rib controls are arbitrary" and based on inspectors' judgments, he said, referring to the tunnel's ceiling and walls. "I disagree with the view that there is a systemic problem with the roof or procedures for controlling the roof and ribs at the Loveridge coal mine."

Several cases illuminate the government's trouble with ending unsafe conditions, even after repeated citations.

In eastern Kentucky, federal inspectors wrote up the Clover Fork No. 1 mine 29 times for "significant and substantial" problems. Eight were for roof and wall problems. "This standard was cited 42 times in two years at this mine," an inspector wrote after an inspection on June 2.

Two weeks after that, rocks crumbled off a wall. Jimmy R. Carmack, a section foreman at the mine, responded. Then a chunk of wall fell behind him. It knocked over a large piece of metal, which struck Carmack in the head.

Kim Link, spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Arch Coal, whose subsidiary owns the Clover Fork mine, said that the circumstances of the case were "highly unusual," and that the operation's safety history is better than the national average.

In another case, the Willow Lake Portal mine in Illinois was on the government's target list for "impact inspections" after the Upper Big Branch blast. During the three months after the explosion, inspectors wrote 35 citations for "significant and substantial" violations there.

Then, on July 9, miner Thomas N. Brown was killed when he was hit by a vehicle there.

"I knew that the federal man would be all over the coal mines, checking," after the Upper Big Branch disaster, said Brown's wife, Joyce Brown, 59. Now, she said, "I wish they could have done more."

A spokeswoman for that mine's parent company, Peabody Energy, said that the circumstances of Brown's death are still under investigation and that the mine has made "aggressive operational changes" to improve safety since then.

Trying to explain why repeated federal citations didn't prevent fatalities, safety experts pointed to the same problems that surfaced after the Upper Big Branch blast. The backlog of appeals cases has grown - clogged by the new citations - meaning that companies can delay payments for years.

At Consol, for instance, the company has contested 31 percent of the safety citations issued to its mines since January. That's more than 1,000 citations, with fines totaling $2.6 million, which won't be paid until the cases are resolved.

In addition, federal regulators still have trouble using their power to temporarily shut down mines that have a "pattern of violations." That provision in the law has not been used successfully in 32 years.

Last week, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced new criteria that could simplify that process. Bills introduced in Congress would expand whistle-blower protections for miners, give the MSHA subpoena power and provide federal regulators with more authority to close unsafe mines. Legislation has stalled on the Senate side.

"Anytime there's a failure to connect the violation to the penalty . . . the enforcement effort doesn't have the curative effect that you need to have," said J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the federal mine-safety administration under President Bill Clinton.

Mining companies don't worry about repeat violations, he said, because the consequences seem so far off. It's unlike parking tickets, he said: "You know the boot's coming. So it encourages you to pay."

Union officials and safety experts say the government also has been slow to push mining companies to adopt new safety technology. One device, for instance, chirps when vehicles get too close to miners.

All that remains

As reform efforts grind slowly, Upper Big Branch - once viewed as the explosion that would change everything - is looking more like past coal-mine catastrophes. In 2006, 12 men died in an explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia.

Reforms followed, but so did another disaster.

"I don't want to hear another politician say they will make sure it never happens again. " said Deborah Hamner, whose husband, George, died at Sago. "It's time for miners to fight for safety. Washington isn't going to do it."

For the families of the nine men who have died in the past six months, what remains are pictures of them posing with coal-blackened faces, old baseball caps and walls covered with fishing trophies.

Along a winding valley road in Delbarton, W.Va., Robie Erwin's house is full of gifts from his mourners: decorated blankets and framed quotes from the Bible.

Erwin's death is still under state and federal investigation. Massey Energy, the mine's parent company, said there is no indication it was at fault.

"Mr. Erwin positioned himself, perhaps unknowingly, in a pinch point between the coal rib and a shuttle car," it said in a statement.

In life, Erwin had been a volunteer coach, a sports referee and a church choir director. His service was so crowded that even the circuit court judge had to stand in the back.

The crowds explain the unusual gifts: Local florists were selling them out of desperation.

Erwin had so many mourners, his family said, that the town ran out of flowers.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company