$336,000 Penalty for Coal Miners’ Deaths

The owners-operators of the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1, Ralph Napier, Connie G. Napier, and John D. North, were assessed a $336,000 penalty by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for violations related to the May 20, 2006 explosion and death of five coal miners.  Press reports indicate that MSHA officials met for four hours yesterday with family members of the deceased miners, along with Paul Ledford, the only survivor from the crew, to discuss their investigation, findings and the citations issued to the mine operator. 

The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Ralph Dunlop and Jim Carroll recap the events leading to the explosion, a

“blast so powerful that it ruptured oil cans and broke mirrors on vehicles parked outside the mine.” 

They also describe some family members’ dissatisfaction with the penalty leveled against the mine operator.

“Tilda Thomas, the widow of Paris Thomas, Jr (53), said after last night’s meeting that she thought the proposed MSHA fine was a small price to pay ‘for our husband’s lives.  If I killed someone, I would get life in prison.’”

The Associated Press’ Roger Alford reported similar comments from other Darby widows:

“’My husband was worth more that that,’ said Melissa Lee, whose husband Jimmy Lee (33) was mong the five victims.  ‘That’s a drop in the bucket for this company.  It’s a mockery to the men who died.’” 

MSHA’s investigation report lists six conditions or practices that contributed to the disaster, and mentions an additional 37 violations issued as part of the investigation.  Like the Sago mine disaster five months earlier, the Darby mine explosion occurred in an area where Omega-block seals had been installed, but not properly constructed.  In the Darby case, several metal straps (previously needed for roof support) were left up in the mine roof and protruded across the top of the newly constructed wall, preventing the critical solid barrier to form from the old mined-out area.  When the operator learned that an MSHA inspector would be visiting the mine to look precisely at how the seal had been constructed (a special initiative undertaken by MSHA after learning of the seal-construction problems at the Sago mine) the employer knew something had to be done about the protruding straps.  If the inspector saw the metal straps, he’d know the seals had not been properly installed. 

As the Louisville Courier-Journal reporters recount:

“Assistant foreman James Philpot told investigators that [Amon] Brock said he ‘had to get something done’ about the straps that night before because MSHA inspector Stanley Sturgill was due at the mine the next Monday.  And a notepad belonging to Brock, and found in the area of the explosion, contained a notation to cut some straps.” 

On this matter, the MSHA report reads:

“During the course of the investigation, a small notepad, identified by mine employees as belonging to Brock, was discovered lying on the mine floor in the main return just outby the location of the No. 3 Seal. The phrase ‘Cut straps & 2 Buckets sealant’ was written on the first page of the notepad. A photograph of this page of the notepad is included in Appendix U.”

As MSHA’s report  indicates (and is similar in this regard to the State’s report issued in December 2006) that Amon Brock and Jimmy Lee were using an acetylene cylinder and cutting torch to cut the metal straps across the top of the seal.  

“The metal roof straps each contained longitudinal channels which, under certain conditions, could create a conduit for gases to flow from the sealed area into the active workings. It is most likely that such a conduit was created on May 20, 2006, when one of the metal straps was cut with an oxygen/acetylene torch, allowing an explosive mixture of methane and air to come into contact with either the torch flame or materials heated by the torch flame.”

The six MSHA citations issued yesterday to the Kentucky Darby Mine operator include three with the highest negligence classification (i.e., reckless disregard) for failing to properly construct the mine seals and using an open flame underground.  The three other citations were deemed “high negligence” and involved inadequate escapeways and maps, insufficient evacuation training, and inadequate training in the proper use of self-contained self-rescue breathing devices.  The federal investigation was led by Thomas E. Light of MSHA’s New Stanton, PA office, along with mine experts from the agency’s offices in Morgantown WV, Pineville WV, Pikeville KY, Vincennes IN and Pittsburgh PA.

During yesterday’s meeting with families of the deceased Darby miners, MSHA officials would not comment on whether they would be turning the case over to the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal charges. 

Celeste Monforton is a researcher associate and lecturer at the George Washington School of Public Health & Health Services.  She worked at the US Department of Labor (OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001)) as a policy analyst and special assistant.