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Vol. 74/No. 46      December 6, 2010

Deaths in U.S. mines rise
despite gov’t ‘safety’ plan
Promising to improve coal mine safety inspections, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced November 18 its “Rules to Live By II: Preventing Catastrophic Accidents.”

The first phase of “Rules to Live By” was launched at the beginning of the year. Since then 46 coal miners in the United States have been killed on the job, the second highest toll in this decade and just one miner behind the number who lost their lives in 2006.

The MSHA plan is based on a review of data from eight underground mining accidents in which five or more workers were killed between 2000 and 2009. “The goal,” states an MSHA news release, “is to prevent major accidents—from fires to explosions” with “enhanced enforcement efforts” to begin Jan. 1, 2011. The review does not include the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.

State and federal investigations into the Upper Big Branch explosion—the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years—still drag on after nearly nine months. Massey is currently refusing to cooperate with MSHA tests on a longwall mining machine spray unit that is supposed to reduce explosive coal dust during production. MSHA has in turn threatened to seize control of the mine if the company does not comply.

Massey, meanwhile, is attempting to make the case that the explosion had nothing to do with high methane gas levels. In a talk to a mining industry conference November 18, Massey CEO Don Blankenship claimed the blast was a natural occurrence, resulting from natural gas leaking into the area through a crack in the mining floor.

A similar attempt to wash its hands of responsibility was put forward by International Coal Group, the owners of the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in 2006 killed 12 miners. The company argued the accident was caused by lightning.

The Upper Big Branch Mine has a long record of safety violations prior the April 5 blast, as well as unsafe working conditions since then. In early November the mine had to be evacuated as methane gas levels reached explosive levels.

In another development, MSHA for the first time ever is seeking a court order to close a coal mine because of unsafe working conditions. A preliminary injunction is being sought against Freedom Energy’s Mine no.1 in Pike County, Kentucky; the mine is owned by Massey Energy.

Over the past three years inspectors have issued 1,952 citations and 81 orders to close the mine. According to MSHA, seven miners have been injured as a result of falling roofs in the past two years. Six major roof falls have occurred there since August 11.
Related articles:
New Zealand: 29 are trapped in coal mine amid speedup  
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