Foreman at Bell mine pleads guilty to safety offense that led to death

A former supervisor at a Bell County coal mine pleaded guilty Wednesday in connection with a safety violation that led to the death of an employee.

Anthony Tyler Cornett, who was a foreman at the mine, allowed the employee, 31-year-old Justin Mize, to crawl into an auger hole that had no support for the roof, according to federal records.

A slab of rock 8 feet wide, 6 feet long and 16 inches thick fell from the roof and crushed Mize, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Federal law bars miners from going into an auger hole without permission from MSHA. Cornett pleaded guilty to violating a mandatory safety standard.

The charge carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Cornett also must permanently forfeit his certifications to work as a mine foreman, according to the plea agreement.

Cornett is to be sentenced in August.

The accident happened Oct. 7, 2014, at the Commonwealth Mining LLC Tinsley Branch HWM 61 mine, about 4 miles from Pineville.

The mine was a highwall, or open-pit, mine, where workers used a machine to dig into the hill from outside. The machine used cutter heads to claw out coal and auger conveyors that push it to the surface.

The highwall machine at the mine cut a hole just over 9 feet wide, 3 feet high and as deep as 400 feet into the hill, according to the MSHA report.

Just before the fatal roof fall, a chain on one of the cutter heads came off. Workers outside the opening could see the chain lying 37 feet inside, according to the federal report.

Cornett asked one employee to retrieve the chain, but he refused. Mize said he would do it, however, MSHA said in its report.

Three other miners insisted it was too dangerous because the roof appeared to be unstable, but Mize, who had more than nine years’ experience and operated a forklift, insisted he would go, MSHA said.

Cornett helped fashion straps for Mize to hook to the heavy chain so he could drag it out and stood by the entrance as Mize crawled in, according to MSHA.

The MSHA report said other workers saw loose rock and coal hanging from the roof. The rock fell on Mize 10 to 15 seconds after he entered the opening.

Cornett rushed into the dangerous area to check on Mize, then came out and had workers gather equipment to try to rescue him.

Cornett helped free Mize and carry him out, but Mize’s heart stopped while he was being flown to a trauma center, according to MSHA.

Several other miners told investigators that there was no need to try to retrieve the cutter-head chain because there were three or four others available at the mine, MSHA said in its report.