PIKEVILLE — The Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Tuesday that for the first time it successfully placed two mines, including one in Leslie County, on a pattern of violations.
Bledsoe Coal Corp.'s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County and The New West Virginia Mining Co.'s Apache Mine in McDowell County, W.Va., are the first in the history of the 1977 Mine Act to be subject to a pattern of violations enforcement action, which targets mines with chronic and persistent health and safety violations, MSHA said in a news release. Few attempts have been made to place a mine on a pattern list, and, until now, none succeeded as mine operators appealed citations.
"We're trying to send a message to the mining industry that you don't want to go down this path" of a pattern of violations, MSHA chief Joe Main said during a conference call Tuesday. "There are some in the industry that don't get it, and we have two here that have exposed themselves."
The Bledsoe mine's owner, James River Coal in Richmond, Va., has appealed more than half of the citations that led to the pattern of violations, said Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett. The violations included roof control problems, coal dust accumulation, mine ventilation and electrical wiring issues.
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"This admittedly unprecedented action by MSHA is being watched closely not just by this mine and company but all of Kentucky's coal industry," Bissett said after speaking to James River Coal officials. "The company feels confident that those violations under appeal will be reduced."
After a methane and coal dust explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners last year, MSHA stepped up efforts to use the pattern of violations section of the Mine Act and rewrite parts of the regulations to make it easier to use. It increased monthly blitzes — unannounced "impact inspections" — at mines with high numbers of violations.
In November, the Bledsoe mine was issued a potential pattern of violations notice, as were 12 other mines nationwide, including three others in Kentucky: Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 in Pike County, which Massey Energy closed after MSHA sought a court-ordered shutdown; Middle Fork Mining's Ky. No. 2 mine in Harlan County; and Left Fork Mining's Straight Creek No. 1 mine in Bell County.
Bledsoe is still operating, as is Middle Fork Mining, which improved its violation rate since November by 69 percent, MSHA reported Tuesday. The Straight Creek No. 1 mine was idled after its potential pattern of violations notification, Main said.
From January through March, MSHA inspected the 10 mines that still were operating on a potential pattern of violations. Eight had met goals set by safety plans put in place after November, but the Bledsoe and New West Virginia mines did not, MSHA said. In fact, the rate of serious violations increased at both.
"The great disappointment is this, that they didn't take measures that they should have to fix the problems ... to avoid this enforcement action," Main said.
Bissett, speaking for Kentucky Coal Association member James River Coal, said the Bledsoe mine has not been cited for any significant and substantial violations since Feb. 1 and is "trending toward reducing its violations." But a contractor at the mine, Clinton Construction, was issued two significant and substantial violations, regarding large equipment inspections and maintenance, on Feb. 28.
"The hope is they can be removed from this POV status based on this trend in the near future," Bissett said.
Once a mine is placed on a pattern of violations, MSHA issues a withdrawal order to halt mining in a particular section each time it finds a "significant and substantial" violation. An operator can be removed from pattern of violations status after undergoing a wall-to-wall inspection without receiving a single significant and substantial violation.
In February, the widow of a miner killed in the Bledsoe mine sued its parent company, James River Coal, for wrongful death. Travis Brock, 29, died Jan. 22, 2010, after being crushed by a 9.3-ton rock that fell from a mine wall. Brock was operating a continuous miner machine.
MSHA cited the mine after the collapse and had cited it previously for failing to maintain and follow a roof control plan to prevent collapses.
Since Brock's death, the mine has had 21 accidents such as roof falls, 10 of which resulted in injury. Three miners were injured in a single incident in November when a mantrip slipped backward and collided with machinery on the track. Two miners suffered head injuries, and the mantrip operator had a bruised hip, MSHA records said.
Most recently, on Feb. 1, a miner had to get stitches after cutting his head working on a piece of equipment. The mine has reported three roof falls since February.