Mine safety's black hole

By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

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.' "

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