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Vol. 77/No. 10      March 18, 2013

US coal deaths jump: Need
union to fight for mine safety
(front page)
Coal miners Jerry Watts, 52; Brandon Townsend, 34; Edward Finney, 43; Timothy Chamness, 28; Glen Clutter, 51; and John Myles, 44; were killed in six separate incidents in a span of 25 days in January and February.

The six deaths represent the highest number in such a short period since the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia took the lives of 29 workers in April 2010.

This takes place as bosses are pressing to squeeze more out of workers during a contraction in production and employment brought about by a shift in U.S. consumption toward natural gas and the worldwide slowdown in manufacture and trade. In January last year 89,300 worked in coal mining; a year later the figure is 82,000.

“There is a rush for production, which contributes to more unsafe work conditions,” Phil Smith, communications director with the United Mine Workers of America, said in a phone interview Feb. 25. “We need more training and the pace needs to slow down.”

Pointing out that five of the six worked in nonunion mines, Smith said that one-third of coal miners today are members of the UMWA. “We have deaths in union mines, too,” he said. “But records clearly show that they are safer than nonunion mines.”

Four of the six miners killed worked in West Virginia, part of the Appalachian region where the coal industry is contracting the most. The UMWA estimates 3,000 miners in this state alone have been laid off over the past year.

Brandon Townsend was killed Feb. 6 in a Midland Trail Energy mine in Kanawha County, W.Va., when a hydraulic cylinder failed and struck him. Glen Clutter died Feb. 14 after being hit by a slate bar two days earlier while trying to lift a set of four derailed shield carriers back on track. He was employed at a Consolidation Coal Company mine in Marion County, W.Va.

Edward Finney was killed Feb. 7 and John Myles Feb. 19. Both were crushed after being hit by scoops at Metinvest’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

State inspectors cited the Affinity Mine numerous times in the weeks leading up to the deaths for having shuttle car sideboards so high as to block drivers’ visibility. Equipment brought in after Finney’s death was neither properly installed nor maintained, according to a Feb. 19 inspector’s report.

“The company was pushing production. They don’t want you to worry about safety,” coal miner Moses Meade, 40, told the Militant in a March 2 phone interview from Oceania, W.Va. “Just look at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Massey pays the fines and doesn’t fix the problems.”

“When you are a member of a union you can stop working in unsafe conditions,” Meade said. “We look out for each other. Safety was a big thing that started the union. In a nonunion job you are not protected. We call that being job scared.”

Meade is laid off from the Black Oak Mine, owned by Patriot Coal Corp. In 2007 Peabody Energy Corp. spun off most of its union mines to form Patriot Coal. Then last summer Patriot, employing some 4,300, filed for bankruptcy. As part of its filing, Patriot is seeking to cut off more than 20,000 active and retired miners and their families from health benefits and pension plans and to tear up union contracts.

In addition to the four workers killed in West Virginia, Jerry Watts died Jan. 26 at T&T Energy’s Begley Resources mine in Leslie County, Ky., when a hydraulic jack slipped during repair of a bulldozer. Timothy Chamness was crushed operating a continuous mining machine Feb. 13 in the Prairie Eagle South Mine in Perry County, Ill. In November last year Chad Myers, 30, was killed the same way in the Willow Lake Portal in nearby Saline County, Ill.

Continuous miners are massive low-slung machines with a spinning drum to grind into coal seams. They are used in half of the underground coal mined today. Between 1984 and 2010, 30 miners were killed and 220 injured involving continuous mining machines.

Installing sensors that shut down the machine when workers are detected nearby would remove this fatal risk. The government Mine Safety and Health Administration had considered issuing a regulation requiring sensors be installed in 2011. But when mine bosses protested the time frame for the costly upgrade, MSHA backed off. The rule is now scheduled to go into effect this May.

“MSHA intends to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that all miners remain safe,” said a Feb. 20 fatal alert issued by MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph Main.

Asked what kind of actions this would entail, MSHA spokesperson Amy Louviere responded by email Feb. 25 saying, “That would include enhanced enforcement initiatives, such as impact inspections and pattern of violations notifications.”

Alyson Kennedy contributed to this article.

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