The Courier-Journal — Louisville, Kentucky — June 1, 2012
by James R. Carroll
ARLINGTON, VA. — Federal inspectors staging a surprise safety blitz at a Harlan County coal mine two weeks ago found violations serious enough to warrant a nine-day shutdown of the operation, which is owned in part by former operators of another Kentucky mine where an explosion killed five miners in 2006.
Documents that The Courier-Journal obtained from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show that the May 16 blitz of K and D Mining Inc.’s Mine No. 17 in Highsplint found little or no ventilation where miners were working, thick accumulations of coal dust that can cause black lung and explosions, a broken methane gas warning light, conveyor belts covered in coal dust as deep as 9 inches and rubbing against metal, creating a potential fire danger, and a mining machine with 22 electrical hazards and clogged water sprays.
“This is really serious stuff,” MSHA chief Joseph Main said in an interview this week. “These are the kind of conditions that lead to mine explosions.”
One inspector wrote that the mine operator “has engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence.” Other citations repeatedly noted a “reckless disregard” for safety.
The main track into the mine was not properly maintained; miners were working under unsupported roofs; fire suppression equipment failed to work; the backup power generator for the mine did not start; trash and other combustible material were piled up in one of the mine’s escape routes; those routes were not properly marked; and the locations of breathing devices were not properly marked, MSHA inspectors found.
In all, K and D was hit with 43 citations and orders, including an order to close until the safety violations were addressed. The mine did not reopen until May 25, Main said.
“We should not be mining coal like this in this day and age in this country, when we know the consequences when these kinds of conditions exist,” he said.
No one answered the telephone Thursday morning at the company’s office in Middlesboro, Ky. In the afternoon, officials were not available at that location, according to an employee who answered the phone.
The company, which employs 33 to 35 people, according to MSHA, is owned by Ralph Napier, John D. North and Jack H. Ealy. Napier and North were the operators of Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, where five miners were killed by a methane blast on May 20, 2006.
MSHA found Kentucky Darby had improperly sealed a section of the mine, failed to follow proper methods for repairing the seal and failed to train miners in using escapeways and breathing equipment.
“It made me sick to my stomach reading the laundry list of violations, when one considers that Ralph had a mine where five miners were killed,” said Tony Oppegard, a former state and federal mine safety official. Now a Lexington, Ky., attorney, he represented families of several victims of the Kentucky Darby accident.
“You’d think Ralph would be hyper-vigilant about safety, but these citations indicate an operator who … has little regard for safety,” Oppegard said.
Napier did not answer his cellphone on Thursday.
Civil penalties against K and D have not yet been determined. But MSHA records show the mine already owes $504,933 in penalties and interest since 2010, and it hasn’t paid any of that total. Most of the fines are now classified as delinquent.
The Courier-Journal reported in April that Napier and North also have not paid nearly $700,000 in civil fines and interest fees for safety violations at Kentucky Darby.
K and D Mining, which began operating its mine in February 2010, was the subject of two previous MSHA safety blitzes before this month’s surprise inspection.
In all, the mine has been cited 94 times for safety violations, and two-thirds of those violations were deemed “significant and substantial,” which MSHA considers violations likely to cause reasonably serious injury. Those serious violations are double the national rate.
Sitting at a conference table during this week’s interview at MSHA headquarters in Arlington, Main thumbed through a sheaf of K and D violations almost a half-inch thick.
“It was bad, looking at it from the most conservative view,” Main said of what MSHA inspectors found.
Charlie Thomas, deputy MSHA administrator for coal mine safety and health, agreed.
“Basically, this mine has got to change their culture and their behavior,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this type of non-compliance with the regulations.”
The MSHA blitz was carried out by inspectors from the agency’s District 7 office in Barbourville, Ky.
The six inspectors and two supervisors swooped down without warning, seizing the telephones in the office so miners and supervisors in the mine could not be warned.
Inspectors then entered the mine and reached the working face and the miners.
“They got in the mine and walked right up on this section,” Main said, finding miners working in extremely dusty conditions. Inspectors discovered that a 75-foot-long ventilation curtain that should have been hanging to help direct air to the mine face was rolled up against the roof.
Following the citations and the closure order, K and D was not permitted to reopen until all safety hazards had been addressed, developed an action plan on safety issues and conducted safety training for employees.
MSHA inspects about 14,000 mines annually, but the agency also is concentrating special safety blitzes at mines with chronic safety problems.