Despite shutdown, journalists finding plenty to report on coal miner fatalities

Roger R. King, 62, in West Virginia. Robert Smith, 47, in Illinois. Mark Christopher Stassinos, 44, in Wyoming.  Larry Schwartz, 59, in Indiana.
Four coal miners, working in four different States, employed by four different mining companies, all fatally injured on the job during the first eleven days of the government shutdown.  King was employed at CONSOL's McElroy mine, Smith at Alliance Resources' Pattiki mine, Stassinos at PacifiCorp's Bridger mine, and Schwartz at Five Star Mining's Prosperity Mine.
I didn’t learn of these deaths from anything posted on the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) website. The agency’s webmaster usually posts them here, but he’s been laid-off because of the Republican’s shutdown. I l learned of these fatally injured coal miners because two talented and dogged reporters make it their business to monitor health and safety issues for workers in the mining industry. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. was the first to report on the first three fatalities, which occurred during the first weekend of the shutdown.
Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, picked up with the story of Larry Schwartz and ran with it.  Here’s just some of what we learned from Smith’s reporting about the Prosperity Mine:
  • The mining operation has more than 350 employees, 300 of which work underground.
  • The mining operation has been subject two times to MSHA’s special impact inspections.  These inspections occur each month and are reserved for a dozen or so mining operations that need extra scrutiny because their past history breaking mine safety laws. MSHA implemented the impact inspection program following the deadly explosion in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch mine which killed 29 coal miners.
  • The mining operation has already received 466 MSHA citations this year.  Last year it received 625 MSHA citations, including one order to remove workers from the mine because of an imminent-danger situation.
  • The mining operation’s lost-time injury rate in 2012 was almost 24 percent higher than the national average. This figure does not include seven serious injuries suffered by independent contractors.

The preliminary report on Larry Schwartz’s death indicates that he was struck by a mobile piece of equipment (a shuttle car) which fatally pinned him against the coal rib (the wall of the mine.)  This is the type of incident that could be prevented had proximity detection equipment been installed on the mobile equipment. (As I wrote last week, the mining industry is not eager to have a regulation requiring these life-saving devices.)

Ellen Smith continued to dig and came up with this telling piece of information about Five Star Mining, the Prosperity mine's controlling company. The firm’s safety director Mark Eslinger is on record in November 2011 saying that proximity detection devices could give miners a false sense of security.  I bet that Larry Schwartz’s wife, Lori, daughters and son, would gladly exchange that false sense of security to still have alive their husband and father. Smith found the Five Star Mining’s opinion about proximity detection devices in comments submitted to MSHA on proposed rule about proximity-detection devices for continuous mining machines.

We rely on reporters to keep an eye out and tells us what they find. Skilled reporters, such as Ellen Smith and Ken Ward, Jr., are some of the best watchdogs we have, and are essential to a functioning democracy. Pew Research and other organizations have been writing about the federal government shutdown's impact on journalism. Many agencies' public affairs offices are shutdown, FOIA requests are collecting dust (more dust than usual) and data on websites is not being updated. Kudos to Ward and Smith for not letting the federal government shutdown keep us totally in the dark.


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