The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced a record $1.5 million penalty against Massey Energy Company for violations related to the January 19, 2006 deaths of Ellery Hatfield, 46 and Don Bragg, 33 at the Aracoma Alma #1 Mine in Stollings, WV.  The investigators, led by MSHA district manager Kenny Murray of Pikeville, KY, found more than two dozen violations of MSHA standards.  Twenty-one of the 25 violations were classified as ”reckless disregard,” the most severe category of negligence under MSHA’s penalty structure.  In a prepared statement, the company said that it “respects the views of MSHA and will fully consider the agency’s findings as part of the Company’s own investigation of the incident.”  Recall, this is the same company that obstructed MSHA’s investigation of the disaster by failing to provide documents requested by the investigators.

After filing suit in federal court to compel Massey to produce evidence, MSHA’s acting assistant secretary noted:

“This is the first time MSHA has been faced with a broad refusal by a mine operator to provide relevant documents in an investigation and, subsequently, the first time that this kind of civil action against a mine operator has been necessary.”

MSHA’s 118-page report provides a detailed account of the mine fire which ignited on a longwall conveyor belt fueled by accumulated (a bad thing) coal dust.  The violations relate to the following conditions:

  • There was no carbon monoxide (CO) alarm unit in the area where 12 miners were working on the day of the fire.
  • Personnel doors along the escapeways were not clearly marked.
  • There was no fire suppression system installed on the longwall mining unit where the fire originated.
  • Coal mine dust had accumulated along the longwall belt, a hazard that should have been identified by the mine examiner, and corrected. 
  • Operators of the atmospheric monitoring system (AMS) were not adequately trained in their duties related to mine emergencies.
  • There was a delay of 28 minutes after the first CO alarm signaled before miners were evacuated from the mine.
  • Firehose couplings were not compatible with fire valve outlets and there was no water in the line, making it next to impossible to fight the fire.
  • Ventilation controls had not been installed or had been removed.
  • Mine maps located on the surface and underground were not accurate, making rescue of the lost miners nearly hopeless.

As noted in a report by J. Davitt McAteer and Associates released earlier this year on the Alma disaster:

“Mine fires are not uncommon along conveyor belts in coal mines. The combination of friction caused by high speed belts and flammable material can and has resulted in heatings and/or ignitions….[but] Means to prevent such fires are also well known: removal of accumulations of coal dust from around the belt, the installation of carbon monoxide detectors to warn if there is a fire, plus frequent examinations by supervisors during pre-shift, on-shift, and weekly examinations.” In the case of Aracoma Alma, “…the loss of life could have been prevented if the proper remedial precautions were taken, if the water supply system had not been compromised, if the miners had been directed to a protected escapeway, if the smoke had not compromised the escapeway they did take, if the order to evacuate had been given promptly….This fire was preventable, but it was not prevented.”

The Richmond, VA-based Massey Energy has 30 days to contest the violations and the penalty. 

Meanwhile, MSHA’s internal investigation continues on the quality of the agency’s own inspections at the Aracoma Alma mine prior to this disaster.  The question begging for an answer is why MSHA’s mandatory inspections of this mine, including inspections in the two months preceding the disaster, did not bring the hammer down on a coal mine operator with missing ventilation controls, inoperable water lines, chronic build-up of combustible material, unmarked personnel doors, etc., etc., etc.   Is this what “compliance assistance” instead of “tough enforcement” gets you?