Mine managers fined for violating safety laws

LONDON — Three managers of an underground coal mine in Harlan County have been fined for violating federal safety laws, but they were not sentenced to prison time.

Ira Sergent, Johnny Osbourne and Reggie Raleigh pleaded guilty to creating a potentially dangerous situation at Stillhouse Mining's No. 1 mine, near Cumberland, by shutting off a ventilation fan for six hours during a December 2006 shift.

Ventilation fans provide fresh air for miners underground and remove explosive dust and gases.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove sentenced Sergent to six months probation and a $5,000 fine. That was the maximum fine under advisory sentencing guidelines.

Van Tatenhove fined Osbourne and Raleigh $2,500 each, but he did not place them on probation.

Sergent received a bigger fine because he had a higher level of responsibility at the mine when the fan was off, Van Tatenhove said.

Attorneys for the three experienced miners urged Van Tatenhove not to put them in jail, saying they have lived respectable lives and have contributed to their communities. None had been cited for such a serious safety violation before, their attorneys said.

Sergent had a brother hurt in a mining accident, so he certainly wouldn't want to see anyone else hurt, said his attorney, Billy Shelton.

The attorneys also pointed out that there were no injuries caused by the fan being off.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sledd, however, said the three mine managers deliberately chose not to follow the law.

Van Tatenhove said he didn't see any malicious intent in the decision to turn off the mine fan. But the temptation to cut a corner led to a bad decision that was unacceptable given the potential dangers in underground mining, Van Tatenhove said.

"You made a decision that could have had a disastrous consequence," he told the miners.

The three faced potential sentences of up to six months in prison and fines ranging from $250 to $5,000 under advisory guidelines.

The mine where the three men worked is the same one where miners Russell Cole, 39, and Brandon Wilder, 23, were crushed to death in a roof fall in 2005.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said the deaths resulted from Stillhouse Mining's "reckless disregard" for the law.

Tony Oppegard, a Lexington lawyer who previously worked as a federal and state mine-safety official and represented the family of one of the miners killed at Stillhouse, said the sentences handed down Thursday weren't stiff enough to deter bad conduct in the mining industry.

"I have no sympathy for foremen who intentionally put miners' lives at risk," he said.