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

By Lisa de Moraes Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; C05

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."

MSHA officials did not specify whether the number of violations at Cobalt was unusual, AP reported.

"We welcome the inspections because our hearts are truly pure, and we want to run a safe and clean operation," Crowder said.

On Jan. 5, Crowder told TV critics: "Obviously, we were concerned about the safety. We spent as much time on the preliminary work to get the precautionary measures in place, and make sure everybody was going to be safe as much, as they have been in filming - as much time as been filming up till now."

A Spike TV spokeswoman said Thursday that the MSHA reported that it issued more than 100,000 violations against the country's 2,000 coal mines in 2009.

"We had no accidents and no incidents while we were there," the Spike TV spokeswoman told the TV Column.

Beers's calling card is producing popular reality series about people engaged in dangerous occupations. His resume includes "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men."

First lady on 'Oprah'

Days after President Obama announced new government-wide initiatives to support military families - including programs aimed at preventing homelessness among veterans and suicide - first lady Michelle Obama took the message to the Reigning Queen of Daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, who dedicated an entire day of her syndicated talk show to the subject.

"We're going to ask the country to get ourselves together and be a part of reconnecting these families to the broader community," Michelle Obama told Oprah and her millions of followers, including a studio audience that leapt to its feet (some began hugging one another) when the first lady came on stage.

"All right - calm yourselves," Oprah told her audience.

"How many of you watching can name a soldier who's fighting in the war?" Oprah asked her followers at the top of Thursday's show, which was taped days earlier. "I can honestly say I cannot."

"A few months back, Tom Brokaw called me up with a show idea. . . . He was very blunt, as matter of fact," Oprah continued.

Brokaw told her that "if you don't know someone who's fighting on the front lines right now, or a family in town that has one of their own serving, then you don't care about the war of the men and women fighting it," she continued.

Then Brokaw came out to deliver the message that less than 1 percent of the population is "bearing 100 percent of the burden of battle," which includes leaving behind their families for two and three tours at a time while "nothing else is asked of the rest of us."

"It's not just unjust - in a way, it's immoral," Brokaw said.

Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward then came out, calling the situation an "epidemic of disconnection" in the country.

"There are things as a nation we can do big and small. And it's not a difficult thing to do," Obama said.

Carmen Blackmore and her husband, Clifford Blackmore, an U.S. Army warrant officer, appeared with the first lady, who called Carmen Blackmore one of her heroes.

"Because, in addition to taking care of business in her own house, she's incredibly involved in the family readiness group, which means she's helping other families adjust," Obama said.

The first lady told Oprah about the military families she has met and the stories she has heard about multiple deployments, missed birthdays and children asking when a parent would be coming home.

"Let me tell you, their stories took my breath away," Obama said.

Catch CW?

CW has pulled the plug on plans to air "Smallville" and "Supernatural" on Friday night and instead will rerun the same original episodes of "The Vampire Diaries" and "Nikita" that it will have aired just one night earlier.

This had serious students of TV - and fans of all the above series - scratching their heads in wonder.

Here's what's going on.

"The Vampire Diaries" and "Nikita" were returning - with original episodes - to CW's schedule Thursday night. You might have read here in The TV Column about the marketing campaign that CW deployed to get out the word about the return of "The Vampire Diaries" - the network's No. 1 show among viewers in young age brackets, who make up the audience sold to advertisers. The campaign urges viewers to "Catch VD."

Do you have any idea how much a "Catch VD" campaign costs?

Anyway, two CW stations in important TV markets plan to preempt the much-ballyhooed return of "The Vampire Diaries." One is Chicago - the third-biggest TV market in the country, behind only New York and Los Angeles. In Chicago, "VD" has been KO'd by a Chicago mayoral debate.

The other market is Baltimore, the country's 26th-largest TV market. In Baltimore, "VD" is being preempted by ACC - basketball, that is.

Also figuring into CW's thinking: Thursday night marks the return of "The Vampire Diaries" against ratings behemoth "American Idol." "Idol," which used to air Tuesday and Wednesday nights, moved to Wednesday and Thursday nights this season.

Add these factors together, and what the folks at CW decided was that "VD" and "Nikita" could use a second consecutive night of viewer sampling. So, Friday's episodes of "Smallville" and "Supernatural" will be moved to next week. Because, let's face it, fans of those shows are so fanatical, they'll watch them a week late.

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