“The mine has failed to meet acceptable standards for safety, compliance and operating performance,” Peabody said in a Nov. 27 press release.
Workers at the mine, members of UMWA Local 5929, have been fighting for a contract since May 2011 when they voted to be represented by the UMWA. The question of safety, and in particular the right to a union safety committee, was among the top concerns driving the workers’ unionization effort.
“They didn’t want the union, you know? That’s my feelings,” Willow Lake miner Mike Sampson, told WSIL-TV at a Nov. 29 meeting organized by the United Mine Workers about the mine closing.
On Nov. 17, Chad Meyers, 30, was killed on the job when he was crushed between a continuous mining machine he was operating and the coal rib. Meyers was not experienced at operating the machine, according to a couple of miners who spoke with the Militant.
“He had run the miner the night before for a half shift,” said Ryan Pate, 31. “The next night the boss needed a miner operator when some men didn’t come to work. This was the first time Chad ran the miner completely on his own.”
Another 26-year-old roof bolter at Willow Lake, who asked that his name not be used, said workers were under heavy pressure to increase coal production. “The company safety meetings were just to tell us production was too low and we were basically no good,” he said. “Morale among the workers was low. The equipment we had to work with was junk.”
On Nov. 30, just 13 days after the fatality at Willow Lake, Steve O’Dell, 27, of Mount Nebo, W.Va., was killed when he was pinned between a continuous mining machine and a scoop at the Alpha Natural Resources Pocahontas Mine.
Later that same day, part of a coal-waste embankment gave way at Consol Energy’s Robinson Run operation in Harrison County, W.Va., sending a bulldozer and two pickup trucks sliding into the complex’s huge slurry impoundment. Two engineers in the pickup trucks were treated and released from area hospitals, but the body of the bulldozer operator, whose name has not been released, has still not been found.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration reported in June that since January 2010, at least 85 miners nationwide have been injured—including eight who were killed— where miners are crushed, run over, pinned by or struck by moving mining equipment.
Still, the Obama administration has yet to finalize a requirement for “proximity devices” that would shut down equipment when miners get too close, and help prevent such deaths.
The Willow Lake Mine, which opened in 2002, has a long record of safety violations. In July 2010, a supervisor at the mine was killed when a shuttle car hauling coal struck him.
UMWA Vice President and Region 3 Director Steve Earle of Madisonville, Ky., told the Militant in a Dec. 6 phone interview that the union knew of safety problems and was making suggestions to Peabody to improve safety.
“We’ve had a number of issues with Peabody, including unfair labor practices over the period of time since the miners at Willow Lake voted for the UMWA. We had put those issues behind us, and they were bargaining in good faith and we were too.”
Earle said the union will continue to negotiate with the company for a contract for the 34 surface workers at the preparation plant, which will continue to operate, running coal from Peabody’s Wildcat Hills Mine.
According to both miners, Peabody has permits to mine Willow Lake’s coal reserves through Wildcat Hills, a nearby nonunion Peabody mine.
The closing of the Willow Lake Mine comes on top of layoffs at American Coal, owned by Murray Energy Corp. in Galatia. Unemployment in Saline county, home to both Equality and Galatia, stood at 8.6 percent in October.
Alyson Kennedy contributed to this article.
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