Safety agency fines Harlan coal company $594,100 after miner's death

bestep@herald-leader.comJuly 12, 2012 

Federal mine-safety regulators want to fine a Harlan County coal company nearly $600,000 for alleged safety violations that led to the death of a miner last year.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced the fine for Manalapan Mining Co. Inc. on Thursday.

The fine is a proposed penalty because the company is contesting the citations that led to the fine.

Miner David A. Partin, 49, of Pineville, who had 16 years of experience, died at Manalapan's P-1 mine in Harlan County on June 29, 2011, when a piece of rock nearly 7 feet long and 3 feet thick fell from the wall — or rib — of the underground mine and knocked him into a piece of equipment.

Other miners performed first aid and rushed him out of the mine, but he was pronounced dead when they got to the surface, according to a federal report.

MSHA investigators said that the company failed to properly support the wall, and that employees responsible for looking for hazards ignored or didn't recognize the hazardous wall condition.

MSHA said in a release that the proposed fine was for four violations: failing to support the mine ribs, failing to conduct adequate pre-shift and on-shift safety examinations, ignoring the hazardous rib conditions, and failing to upgrade the roof-support plan to take into account changing conditions in the mine.

MSHA proposed a total fine of $594,100.

The agency said three of the violations were flagrant and put the penalty on those at $174,700 each.

That was near the maximum of $220,000 per flagrant violation allowed under federal law.

The penalty for such violations was increased in 2006 after a spike in mine deaths in Kentucky and West Virginia, including an explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine in Harlan County that killed five miners.

"Dozens of miners are injured by rib and roof falls every year and, tragically, some are killed," MSHA chief Joseph A. Main said in a release on the proposed Manalapan fine. "The accident investigation found that, had the mine operator properly secured the mine's ribs and revised its roof control plan ... this tragedy might have been averted."

Manalapan's attorney did not return a telephone call Thursday.

The company and three supervisory employees face federal criminal charges.

A federal grand jury charged that in the weeks before Partin was killed, the company and employees Jefferson Davis, Joseph Miniard and Bryant Massingale put miners at risk of having the roof fall on them.

One issue involved a piece of equipment designed to hold up the roof while workers use a machine to install support bolts.

The temporary support machine didn't reach all the way to the roof, meaning miners were working under sections of rock that were not supported, the indictment said.

The company also had miners operate equipment that didn't have proper protective canopies, and it kept equipment in service that could have shocked miners, the indictment said.

The three supervisors allegedly allowed miners to work under unsupported rock.

The grand jury also charged that Massingale falsified records by not noting hazardous conditions and that Miniard signed off on the improper paperwork.

Massingale, who was the second-shift foreman, has filed a motion to plead guilty.

However, the company and the two other employees maintain their innocence, said Richard Plymale, an attorney who represents Manalapan in the criminal case but not in the case involving the civil fine.

The P-1 mine, where Partin was killed, had 85 employees in the first quarter of 2011 but listed only six in the third quarter of that year.

The MSHA database lists Manalapan as the operator of seven underground mines, but all are non-producing or idled, according to the MSHA database.

"You wonder here whether anything will ever be paid" given that the company is not producing coal, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington lawyer who formerly worked for the federal and state mine-safety agencies.

MSHA also proposed more than $600,000 in fines against the company in 2011 for alleged health and safety violations.

Some Manalapan mines came under increased federal scrutiny in the wake of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Weeks after the West Virginia disaster, federal inspectors alleged that employees above ground at two Manalapan mines warned miners underground that regulators were on the property.

That would have allowed employees underground to fix potential violations before inspectors could cite them, MSHA said in a court document.

Those allegations did not involve the P-1 mine.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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