The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 28           July 31, 2006  
Many mine emergency
air devices are found defective
Two more coal miners die on the job
in Kentucky, bringing year’s toll to 35
(feature article)
WASHINGTON—Kentucky mine safety officials announced July 7 that 119 emergency air packs being used in 174 mines in the state were defective and had to be replaced. Kentucky has about 10,000 underground coal miners, according to the Kentucky Coal Association.

The same day, another miner was killed on the job in western Kentucky. And another was killed in eastern Kentucky July 18, bringing this year’s national death toll to 35 coal miners.

Kentucky governor Ernest Fletcher ordered a review of thousands of the devices after five miners were killed in a May 20 explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County.

In an opinion column in the July 12 Louisville Courier-Journal, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president Cecil Roberts reiterated the union’s call for the federal mine agency to begin systematic safety checks of the self-contained self-rescuer (SCSR) devices—as the emergency air packs are called—in every mine across the country.

In a July 10 letter, West Virginia mine safety officials instructed mine operators and contractors in that state to provide detailed information by August 15 on SCSRs being used by their employees.

The Associated Press also reported that the air pack used by one of 12 miners who died following a January 2 explosion at the Sago Mine in that state exceeded its expiration date perhaps by four months.

“The findings demonstrate how critical it is for immediate and more thorough testing of these units nationwide,” Roberts wrote. Because the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has refused to do so, Roberts said the union has filed a suit to force MSHA to do its job.

UMWA communications director Phil Smith told the Militant that MSHA filed a motion in early July to dismiss the suit. “We are waiting for the judge to review the motions and a decision,” he said.

William Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the findings are not alarming, even if they suggest that miners, companies, and inspectors need to check the devices frequently, reported the Courier-Journal. “I don’t think it indicates a problem, no,” Caylor said.

Paul Ledford, the sole survivor of the explosion at Darby Mine No. 1, initially said his self-rescuer failed after 10 minutes. He passed out twice trying to escape the mine before being rescued. Ledford said MSHA officials later told him that in the excitement he was breathing faster than the device could produce air.

Two miners died from the impact of that explosion. Three others died of carbon monoxide poisoning despite having put on their self-rescuers.

The July 10 letter from West Virginia’s mine safety office says the agency requires mine owners to provide the make and serial number of SCSRs in use in their mines, date the device was put in service, inspection dates, names and certification of inspectors, and date and reason a device is removed for service.

Ira Gamm, a spokesman for the International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine, said the expiration date of the air pack being carried by one of 12 miners killed in the January 2 explosion was due to a typographical error, reported AP. Gamm said the master list maintained in the Sago Mine office showed the devices were made in August 1996, when it should have said August 1995.

Mine owners, and state and federal safety officials have tried to blame individual miners. Caylor, for example, said “regulators should put more weight on the ‘behavior modification’ of miners—changing bad, unsafe habits to prevent future disasters,” according to AP.

West Virginia acting mine safety chief James Dean said the expired air pack shows the need for better training of miners, who are responsible for inspecting their own air pack each day.

Dean acknowledged, however, that his agency found that one of its own inspectors had been carrying a 12-year-old air pack. The average shelf life of the devices is 10 years, according to manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Channel 14 TV news in Evansville, Indiana, reported that Ed Fitzgerrel, who was working as a contractor at a new coal preparation plant in Hopkins County, Kentucky, was killed on the job July 7. Hopkins County Coal LLC owns the plant. The worker was employed by General Mine Contracting in Henderson, Kentucky. John Walters, the Hopkins County coroner, said Fitzgerrel was operating a lift with a basket, got caught between the apparatus and the basket after a mechanical failure, and was fatally injured.

A 35th coal miner was killed July 18 on the surface of Hendrickson Equipment’s Smith Branch No. 1 mine in Knott County. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Jason Mosley, 28, died when material from a highwall above his covered drilling machine fell and crushed the machine’s cab with him inside.

The mine has been open since October 2005. According to the Associated Press, MSHA has cited the mine 10 times, most recently in June for equipment violations and for allowing loose, hazardous material to accumulate on top of pits and highwalls.
Related articles:
On the Picket Line
U.S. coal miner in Australia speaks on union fight  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home