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Man dies of mining injuries

HAZARD — Kentucky's first underground mining death in more than a year and a half was reported last week after a man died of injuries he received when he was pinned to the roof of a mine in Bell County.

According to a preliminary report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Joseph D. Roberts, 45, was riding on top of a scoop on July 17 when the accident occurred at the Butcher Branch Mine near Beverly.

The driver of the scoop was taking a load of rock dust toward the working section of the mine at 5 p.m. when he came into a dip in the floor. While attempting to stop the scoop, the operator dropped the bucket to the mine floor, which caused the scoop to bow and pin Roberts against the mine's roof, the report said.

Roberts was taken to the Holston Valley Hospital in Bristol, Tenn., with a broken pelvis. On July 22, he was treated for kidney failure and placed on a ventilator. He died on July 25 during emergency surgery.

Roberts had worked at the mine for about a year as a shuttle car operator, but he had 16 years of experience at other mines, according to MSHA, which is investigating the accident.

Officials would not say Monday whether violations may have led to the accident or whether citations will be issued.

“No conclusions will be reached until the final accident report is concluded and made public,” said Matthew Faraci, a spokesman for MSHA.

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate from Lexington, said federal law prohibits using a piece of equipment to haul an employee when supplies are also being transported.

“The federal law is pretty clear on that,” said Oppegard, who is a former attorney for MSHA and the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. “Investigators need to find out whether or not this was an isolated incident or a reoccurring practice … because it is obviously dangerous and should never be done.”

Butcher Branch Mine, which has 48 employees, is operated by Century Operations LLC, which is controlled by Broe Cos. Inc.

Mine officials did not immediately return Herald-Leader phone calls Monday.

This year MSHA issued 96 citations to Butcher Branch Mine, which was fined nearly $155,000 for violations. Information about those citations was not available Monday.

Roberts' death marks the first time Kentucky has had an underground mine fatality since Nov. 4, 2006, a record for the state, which has the most coal mines in the nation.

Kentucky also has the second-largest mining work force and is the nation's third-largest producer of coal, according to the state's Department of Natural Resources Web site.

This year in Kentucky, two people have been killed in surface mining accidents.

On Jan. 8, Roy Douglas Sturgill II, 29, was killed after he backed his Caterpillar rock truck over a dumping point at the Blue Ridge Mine in Letcher County. On June 3, a 33-year-old tree cutter with 10 years' experience was fatally injured while cutting trees in advance of a surface mining operation.

Overall in the Unites States this year there have been 17 fatalities at both surface and underground mines.

Kentucky hit a historic low in overall mine fatalities in 2007 with two deaths reported on surface mines and none underground.

Last year was a stark change from 2006 when Kentucky's coalfields were scarred by 16 deaths and the worst mining disaster in the state since 1989.