Two mines on verge of closure due to safety violations

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Mike Rich
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For the first time ever, federal mine regulators have issued a notice to two coal mining companies that could lead to their eventual closure.

The notice of pattern violations was issued to Bledsoe Coal Corp.’s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County, Ky. and The New West Virginia Mining Co.’s Apache Mine in McDowell County, W.Va.

The notice essentially means that both mining operations could see part of all of their operations closed if they do not immediately improve safety conditions.

Last November, the agency put 13 mines on notice due to a pattern of violations(POV). A 14th mine received similar notification in December, after an agency audit revealed that the mine operator had failed to report a dozen injuries. All 14 mines that received potential POV notices implemented corrective action programs to reduce their significant and substantial, known as S&S, issuance rates.

Subsequent to the potential POV notifications, two of the 14 mines were temporarily idled, one ceased production and  one has not completed the evaluation process. Between Jan. 3 and March 21, 2011, MSHA conducted inspections of the 10 remaining mines. Of those, eight met the prescribed S&S goals, and the two operations now receiving the POV notices failed to meet their goals by a significant margin.

“They didn’t take measures they should have to fix their problems and improve the level of health and safety at those mines to avoid this enforcement action,” MSHA chief Joseph Main told reporters in a conference call. “Some mine operators get it, and some don’t.”

The Kentucky mine has been assed nearly $600,000 in penalties for safety violations since 2010. However, the company has only paid out $15,000 and is currently appealing a bulk of the citations.

The mine in Apache is currently idle.

MSHA previously implemented major reforms to its POV process, including new screening criteria and a new review process that improves the agency’s ability to identify problem mines. Although the Upper Big Branch Mine met the new criteria and also received a potential POV notification, further actions have been postponed until MSHA’s investigation into the April 2010 explosion there has been completed.

“We take this law and our obligation to enforce it very seriously,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “While we believe most mine operators in this country do as well, it is clear that some do not. If we are to prevent death, injury and illness in the nation’s mines, these enforcement actions are necessary to rein in chronic and persistent violators of safety and health laws.”

Under Section 104(e) of the Mine Act, MSHA issues a withdrawal order at a POV mine each time it issues an S&S violation. The order remains in place until the violation is abated. An operator can be removed from pattern of violations status after undergoing a complete inspection without receiving an S&S violation.

Last week, MSHA introduced an online monitoring tool that, for the first time, allows mine operators and miners to track a mine’s compliance history and compare it to the potential POV criteria. Additional mines are under review by MSHA for potential POV and POV actions.


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