LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Harlan County mine where five men died in an explosion Saturday had no previous fatalities and did not have a high number of safety citations, according to a top official of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Federal inspectors had written 264 citations and orders for various violations at the mine since the current operator, Kentucky Darby LLC, took over the Darby Mine No. 1 in May 2001, according to the MSHA Web site.
That is not an unusual number for a mine of that size and type, said Ray McKinney, MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety and health.
“I think that would probably be normal, maybe a little fewer” than similar mines, McKinney said.
Tony Oppegard of Lexington, a mine-safety advocate who has worked for MSHA and the Kentucky mine-safety office, said an explosion indicates there was some sort of serious safety problem before the blast, however.
“If you have a mine explosion, there’s something wrong at that mine,” he said.
Federal records list Ralph Napier and John D. North as controllers of the mine. Attempts to reach them were not successful.
The largest federal fine proposed against the mine since 2001 was $3,400 for a ventilation violation – a relatively large fine, levied because the violation was allegedly willful.
The agency had written 10 citations to the company this month during a quarterly inspection, four of them for conditions deemed to be serious and substantial.
MSHA’s Web site shows that the mine’s injury rate was worse than the national average the first two years Kentucky Darby operated it, but improved to better than the national rate in 2004 and 2005.
Altogether, the mine reported 22 accidents since May 2001, 10 of which caused miners to lose work days. Three miners were seriously hurt, Gov. Ernie Fletcher said at a news conference Saturday.
Roy Worthington, who worked at the mine from December 2002 to April 2004, said Napier and foreman Amon “Cotton” Brock, one of those killed Saturday, ran a safe operation.
“That was one of the safest mines I’ve ever worked at,” said Worthington, who had nearly 30 years’ experience.
Worthington said Napier and Brock were quick to address dangerous conditions.
Worthington, 54, who lives in Harlan County, suffered disabling injuries at the mine in April 2004 – including a broken pelvis and right leg – when a large section of rock popped out of a 10-foot-high wall of coal and hit him.
The five deaths in Harlan County means this will be the first year in a quarter-century with more than one coal-mining disaster, according to MSHA.
The agency defines an accident as a disaster when five or more people die.
The last year with more than one such accident was 1981, when explosions killed eight miners at the Adkins Coal Co. in Knott County, 13 in Tennessee and 15 in Colorado.
The blast Saturday seems sure to add new fuel to a debate over mine safety that has flared this year because of a jump in deaths. Last year, MSHA recorded 22 coal-mining deaths nationwide; Saturday’s deaths bring the toll this year to 31 in less than six months.
Ten people have now died in coal-mining accidents in Kentucky this year, up from eight in 2005.
Oppegard and other safety advocates argue that while MSHA has good inspectors, the agency under the Bush administration has focused more on helping coal companies comply with the law than on enforcement. They see this year’s deaths as bitter fruit of that philosophy.
“When you have 31 coal-mining deaths in less than six months, you have a crisis,” Oppegard said.
The agency needs to focus on enforcement, he said.
However, MSHA and coal-industry representatives say the agency has not gone soft on coal operators. The agency has backed up its compliance assistance efforts with “strong enforcement against unsafe operators,” MSHA says on its Web site.
In the wake of accidents earlier this year, MSHA issued emergency rules to try to improve mine safety, including requiring more oxygen devices for miners.
Kentucky lawmakers also approved new mine-safety measures this year, among them increased inspections and oxygen supplies. The new rules take effect July 12.
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Fletcher and Susan Bush, head of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, said if the changes had been in place, they might have helped the victims by requiring caches of breathing devices along escape routes, as well as lifelines to help miners find their way out, but that it’s difficult to say for sure.
The legislation probably didn’t take effect as soon as it was passed because coal companies needed time to buy or install necessary equipment, Fletcher said.
The governor said he would consider putting more mine-safety regulations on the agenda for a special session he might call soon.
“My heart sank when I found out about this, because we have tried to do everything we can to reduce these accidents,” Fletcher said.