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Tony Oppegard, '80, in NY Times story on US Miners' Death

Thursday, May 15, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
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Even as the world's attention is riveted by the horrendous loss of life in a Turkish coal mine, American miners continue to die in similar, if smaller, numbers.  Tony Oppegard, '80, long-time coal miner's rights advocate, was quoted in the New York Times and WV Gazette on the death of two West Virginia miners. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/us/west-virginia-mine-accident.html

http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140513/GZ01/140519765/1419




From the NY Times:

The Brody coal mine in Wharton, W.Va., where two people were killed on Monday. Workers were preparing the mine, which is owned by the Patriot Coal Corporation of St. Louis, for abandonment. Credit Marcus Constantino/Charleston Daily Mail, via Associated Press

WHARTON, W.Va. — Two miners died late Monday in an accident inside a West Virginia coal mine whose long history of safety violations had already brought it under special scrutiny by federal officials.

The accident at the Brody No. 1 mine in Wharton, about 30 miles south of Charleston, occurred as the miners were carving away at one of the many pillars of coal that kept the roof from collapsing, the mine owner, the Patriot Coal Corporation of St. Louis, said in an emailed statement.

The company said the miners died in a “severe coal burst,” a violent ejection of coal that can occur as the removal of a pillar shifts the roof’s weight to surrounding ones too weak to handle the added stress. The pillars, often 60 to 80 feet square, are the last remaining coal in a section of a mine that is being abandoned. Retreat operations are among the most dangerous in underground mining.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration said in an email that federal investigators had arrived at the mine but that the cause of the accident had not been determined.

The Brody mine has a history of federal citations for serious safety violations, according to inspection reports on the mine safety administration’s website dating to January 2011.

Federal mine safety officials had already taken two actions that are reserved for mines with the most egregious safety problems, said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer in Lexington, Ky., who is a former adviser to the head of the federal mine safety administration.

The first was a so-called blitz inspection, an unannounced check by a large team of federal safety officials. The second, called a pattern-of-violations letter, was sent to the mine in October. The mine safety administration said the letters “focus on those mine operators who demonstrate a disregard for the health and safety of miners through a recurring pattern of significant and substantial violations.”

In the months since the Brody mine received its pattern-of-violations notice, the mine safety administration said, regulators have evacuated parts of the mine 69 times for substantial violations of safety rules, among other closing orders.

Mr. Oppegard said that “companies refer to it as the death-penalty letter,” because it gives the agency the authority to close parts of mines if violations continue, and because the letter’s strictures cannot be lifted until mine operators meet safety standards that some claim are too rigorous.

Patriot officials contested the letter at the time, saying that many of the violations occurred before the company bought the mine in December 2012. Since then, they said, Patriot had submitted a new safety plan that “made considerable and measurable progress toward improved safety and compliance.”

Safety records show, however, that the mine had been cited 46 times since 2011, including 16 times in 2013 and this year, for unwarrantable failure to comply with safety rules, which the agency defines as “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence.” The agency levied more than $4.2 million in fines for the 2013 and 2014 violations.

The Charleston Gazette reported on Tuesday that federal audits in 2012 and 2013 uncovered 37 injuries to miners that the company did not report to federal officials.

Federal records show that the mine, which employs about 300, produced almost a million tons of coal last year, a substantial amount in a region that has been mined intensively.

The victims were identified as Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight, W.Va., and Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, W.Va. Mr. Legg was on his last week at the mine and was soon to start at another, said Robert Rash, 45, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.

Daniel Heyman reported from Wharton, and Michael Wines from New York.


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