THE TV COLUMN

Deep problems for the owners of Spike's new 'Coal' mine

NO ROOM FOR ERROR: Hank Toler, left, and Jonathan Dotson work in the mine in "Coal." The government has cited mine owner Cobalt for 19 health and safety violations.
NO ROOM FOR ERROR: Hank Toler, left, and Jonathan Dotson work in the mine in "Coal." The government has cited mine owner Cobalt for 19 health and safety violations. (Byron Goggins)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011

You know that West Virginia coal mine that's the star of Spike TV's new reality series "Coal," from the same guy who brings you Discovery's "Deadliest Catch"?

Federal inspectors have cited the Canadian coal company that they say owns the mine for 19 health and safety violations during the nearly three months the TV crew was filming there.

Ten videographers trained for 80 hours and were certified as apprentice coal miners to work underground at Cobalt Coal's mine. They started shooting the reality series for producer Thom Beers on Nov. 9 and finished Jan. 21.

In that time, Cobalt was cited for 19 violations, nearly half of which the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) deemed "significant and substantial," or likely to cause serious injury, the Associated Press has reported.

Two violations were for allowing highly explosive material such as coal dust to pile up, according to MSHA records. Three other violations involved the mine's ventilation plan.

Ventilation plans are crucial because they are how mines control coal dust and methane gas. The MSHA has blamed that deadly combination of factors for the April 5 blast that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, the AP noted. At the time, news media reports called it the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970.

On Dec. 15, Cobalt was cited for allowing as much as 10 inches of loose coal and coal dust to accumulate in one area, according to the AP report.

"This is a failure to comply with a mandatory standard and constitutes more than ordinary negligence," the violation notice said.

During Winter Press Tour 2011 this month, TV critics asked Cobalt chief executive Mike Crowder about the health and safety of workers at his mine.

"We do dust-monitoring samples on a regular basis - a lot of the advanced technologies," he responded.

"And the new Miner Act of 2006/2007 put in a lot of mine-safety regulations that just hadn't been in place before," Crowder said, adding: "Ventilation is greater than it's ever been before. Dust control - when you see some of these activities going on underground, the reason that you can film now, where you couldn't before, is there was just too much dust in there."

About three weeks later, Crowder told the AP that the number of MSHA violations was below the industry average and that "overall, the entire mining industry is under greater scrutiny."


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