Safety is casualty as firms chase profits in coal country

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Even as many underground coal mines slowly improve their safety records, America's Appalachian coal cradle is plagued by rising injury rates and growing numbers of safety violations linked to company negligence, federal records show.

Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia produced about a quarter of the nation's coal from underground mines between 1998 and 2000 but accounted for two-fifths of the citations given those mines for "unwarrantable failure" to comply with federal safety laws, the Tribune found. Those were cases in which coal operators showed reckless disregard, intentional misconduct or serious lack of care.

In eastern Kentucky, miner Ronnie Charles died in a rock fall after his company gorged too much coal from the walls and left an unstable roof, federal inspectors concluded. Gary Caudill was shocked to death trying to repair an improperly wired electrical machine. On a steep coal field haulage road, Gary Blackburn was put at the wheel of a loaded truck with faulty brakes.

The overall U.S. coal mine injury rate has dropped as producers shift operations from tunnels to above-ground strip mines, the biggest of them in the West. The massive strip operations can be environmentally devastating, but they are three times safer than underground mines and have helped U.S. coal production rise to its highest level in history last year.

But after decades of sustained safety progress, improvements in the coal industry's overall injury rate began to slow in the mid-1990s, according to federal safety records and interviews.

"Something started to slip," U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration chief David Lauriski said in an interview. The industry "reached a plateau" and "has not seen significant improvement since then," he said.

A Tribune examination of government databases, court records and fatal accident case files found disturbing trends hindering the coal industry's safety progress.

- Coal mine operators who knowingly broke safety laws and endangered miners faced few consequences from a hamstrung federal enforcement system. From 1995 to 2000, MSHA levied $8.1 million in fines for safety infractions that contributed to fatal accidents. Less than a quarter of that money has been paid. Some operators simply walked away from the penalties and started new firms to excavate the same coal seams.

The most egregious violators faced criminal prosecution. But in eastern Kentucky, where an aggressive U.S. attorney's office has convicted 112 coal officials of criminal safety violations since 1992, more than half were sentenced to probation of 12 months or less, court records show. Because there are no specific federal sentencing guidelines for criminal coal violations, judges often rely on guidelines written for environmental polluters, court records show.

- Coal operators increasingly are operating in unsafe ways. Across the nation, the number of citations for "high negligence" increased 93 percent over the decade.

MSHA inspectors meted out 1,802 "high negligence" citations--accounting for less than four-tenths of 1 percent of all citations--during the five years from 1997 through 2001, compared to 934 in the five years before that.

MSHA officials said in interviews that their enforcement standards did not change significantly during that period.

Over the last three years, as the number of coal mine deaths ticked upward, federal inspectors attributed a growing percentage of those cases to company safety infractions, MSHA records show. Fines meted out for safety violations in coal mine deaths more than doubled to $5.5 million in the three-year period from 1998 through 2000, from $2.6 million in the three years before. Fines have not yet been assessed for all 2001 fatal accidents.

The number of serious and fatal injuries stemming from safety infractions grew most markedly in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, where cash-strapped companies excavate seams riddled by decades of mining.

As coal production continued to slide in the region over the last five years, the injury rate for the 60 biggest underground mines dropped.

But the region also has an unusually high concentration of small- and medium-size mines -- those with 250 miners or fewer. Those 1,100 smaller mines account for nearly half of all underground mines in America.

Small and medium-size underground mines in the region achieved their safest year of the decade in 1997. But the average injury rate for the next three years was 14 percent higher. Similar mines in other parts of Appalachia had increased rates too.

The steep-mountained region's coal fields hold their high-quality fuel in a daunting geography. Typical seams are 20 inches to 40 inches high, forcing miners to use high-powered machines in confined spaces.

Primer on harsh economics

"We're mining what they wouldn't mine before," said eastern Kentucky coal operator Jody Samons. "This is the best of the worst."

The son of a miner with black lung disease who had tried to keep him above ground, Samons started driving a coal truck when he was 16 and did every job in the mines himself before becoming an independent contractor. He has run at least 10 coal mining companies, staying a step ahead of the federal mine safety enforcement system.

A towering 41-year-old with a neatly trimmed black beard, Samons arrives six days a week at the punched-in mountainside portal where his 30 non-union miners pull out 500 tons of coal a day. As he excavates a 35-inch-high coal seam with rebuilt machinery, Samons offers a primer on the harsh economics of central Appalachia's coal fields.

James Sturgill, 35, didn't make it through his first shift in Samons' J&A Coal Corp. No. 1 Mine.

On that March day in 1999, Sturgill and three other miners were ordered to clear debris from a 7-foot-high "boom hole" that had been blasted from the pinched tunnel to make space for power stations and machinery.

Following company instructions, the four miners broke federal safety laws and began removing the rock without first installing temporary roof support, federal prosecutors said in court records. At 7:30 p.m., they stopped for a half-hour lunch, then began bolting the roof.

Their bolting machines were built to accommodate the mine's 35-inch-high tunnels. Working with a higher ceiling, the miners could not sink the bolts securely enough to bind the sheets of unstable shale.

Veteran J&A miner Burl Hughes stood under unsupported rock to guide the bolting machine. Miner John Crisp followed him to install one bolt and start another. Sturgill crawled about 3 feet past Crisp into the unsupported basin to hold the drill while Crisp operated the controls.

Hughes never heard the roof crack. One of the miners heard Sturgill yell--"Get it off me!"--as the dun-gray stone collapsed on him.

Hughes was knocked unconscious. Injured by the rock fall, Crisp and Byron Martin labored to lift the 7-foot slab of shale from Sturgill.

He gasped for air and then was still.

Samons said the tragedy occurred because his workers disregarded "the golden rule of mining" and worked under unsupported roof. "You can only tell a person so many times."

After federal inspectors investigated Sturgill's death, they issued citations saying Samons and his deputies were directing miners to work under unsupported rock and not providing safe levels of fresh air.

MSHA fined Samons $220,000 for "serious and substantial" safety violations that contributed to Sturgill's death, but that money may never be paid.

"I'll just have to declare bankruptcy," Samons said.

For Samons and other operators who accrue safety penalties, bankruptcy is an acceptable way to avoid paying fines. Samons' Frasure Branch Coal Co. declared bankruptcy in 1995 owing MSHA $182,821, including $102,500 for safety violations that entailed "unwarrantable failure" to follow mining laws.

Samons' Thunder Ridge Mining closed in 1998 owing $67,132 in federal mine safety fines. His Lost Creek Mining also shut down that year owing $17,275 for federal safety infractions.

Evading federal fines

"It's just easier to go ahead and form a new corporation," Samons said.

For the safety infractions that led to Sturgill's death, federal prosecutors charged Samons and two top supervisors with criminal violations of the U.S. mining code. Samons and his deputies pleaded guilty. Each was sentenced to a year of probation in which they were forbidden to supervise miners.

But during his probation Samons launched a new company and blasted a fresh entry into the pine-studded cliff. His Eagle Ridge Mining Inc. produced 106,000 tons last year. Samons was listed in Kentucky inspection records as the mine superintendent. He says he believes he followed the rules of his probation because when he needed something done at the mine, he told his right-hand man, Matthew Hall, how to direct the miners.

Hall also had been forbidden to supervise miners. But he successfully petitioned a federal judge to modify the terms of his probation, saying his inability to supervise miners created a hardship for him and his new employer. Hall named Eagle Ridge as his new employer in court papers, but those papers did not say that Samons ran the company.

Samons said he does everything in his power to protect his workers. But if he were paid $6 more per ton, Samons said, he could run a safer mine.

"You could afford to have more people and have better equipment and upkeep," he said. "But there's not enough money in it to do it the way you should. There's too much pressure."

Samons pays his miners $10 an hour to start -- almost half what the average union worker earns -- and offers no health or retirement benefits.

Although listed in MSHA records as a mine operator, Samons doesn't control any mineral rights or own the machinery at Eagle Ridge.

He is in fact a contractor for Knott Floyd Land Co., a privately held partnership that uses Samons and three other contractors to run a handful of nearby underground and strip mines. Samons said Knott Floyd pays him $12 per ton of coal.

"There's pressure on Jody from us," said Knott Floyd co-owner Jim Childers. But he says Samons is a safe operator who was unfairly targeted because his workers acted with tragic recklessness in Sturgill's death.

"The market is winnowing down, and those who survive the market and the enforcement are probably doing something right," Childers said.

When he created his first company in the early 1980s, Samons said, he saved time and money by using two roof bolts when three were required.

"A lot of people, myself included, tend to take shortcuts," Samons said.

Now, in a good year, Samons said, he takes $60,000 from the mine. In a bad one, $12,000.

"When we started," Samons said, "you weren't pushed so hard to produce as we are now. We never worked Saturdays. Now I work two shifts Saturdays."

Starting in 1998, for the first time in more than 40 years, the rate and number of U.S. coal mine deaths increased for three consecutive years, MSHA records show. Forty-two miners died at work last year, up from 29 in 1998.

The increase in coal mine fatalities has not extended long enough to meet standard tests for statistical significance--the pattern could be changed by random events or by a single catastrophe, such as the explosion that killed 13 Alabama coal miners last year.

But an examination of coal mine deaths in eastern Kentucky, where coal production is shrinking and even large companies are skidding into bankruptcy, highlights the conditions that put workers at risk.

Gary Caudill was shocked to death in a James River Coal Co. mine in July 2001. After his death, federal inspectors found the accident scene had been tampered with: Electrical cords had been severed or unplugged so it was impossible to determine precisely how the accident occurred.

Inspectors eventually concluded that a safety switch had been improperly bypassed on a conveyor belt Caudill was trying to fix.

Since 1999, seven James River foremen have been convicted of criminal safety violations in eastern Kentucky. In separate incidents at different James River mines, foremen ordered miners to work under an unsupported roof and without adequate ventilation, and to haul an electrical power station through a water hole without shutting off the power first, according to federal court records.

Mines controlled by James River have had four fatalities since 1998 in which MSHA fined company subsidiaries and contractors a total of $480,000 for safety infractions.

All seven of the convicted foremen have been discharged, said James River Vice President for Administration Jeff Wilson, and the company is "vigorously contesting" MSHA's conclusion that the Caudill accident scene was altered.

He said the company has made sweeping management changes to improve safety. "We're committed to operating safe coal mines," Wilson said. "We feel we're making headway."

In January 2000, electrician Paul Hurt filed a federal administrative complaint alleging a James River subsidiary fired him for talking to federal inspectors about an electrical accident at a company mine. James River denied the charge although a subsidiary resolved Hurt's claim by paying him $15,000 in a confidential settlement, according to court records in Perry County, Ky.

Pressured to take shortcuts

Hurt allegedly had been directed to improperly bypass the circuit breaker on a 575-volt coal-cutting machine. MSHA fined the James River subsidiary $23,000 for safety violations in that case. The miners "seemed to feel pressured to take shortcuts on repair work and to postpone making proper repairs," Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals inspectors wrote in their report.

Lodestar Energy trucker Robert Cooper was killed in 1998 when his brakes failed on a haulage road. Gary Blackburn died driving a Lodestar truck on a steep mine haulage road last year.

Investigating Blackburn's death, federal inspectors cited Lodestar and a contractor for defects on all six of the trucks' brakes. "Mine management was aware that the brakes would not effectively stop the loaded vehicle," federal inspectors reported.

After Cooper's death, MSHA assessed fines of $32,267 against Lodestar and a contractor, saying the truck was not equipped with adequate brakes. The companies contested the fines, which were cut to $19,767.

MSHA has cited Lodestar and its contractors for safety violations in four mine fatalities since 1998, and levied fines totaling $157,000 in those cases.

In a tight market, Lodestar Energy's chief executive, Ira Rennert, managed to extract profit from the coal.

A New York junk bond financier, Rennert in 1998 bought and renamed a struggling coal company with operations stretching from Kentucky to Colorado and Utah.

As the sole member of Lodestar's board of directors, Rennert had his new company pay $29 million in dividends and consulting fees to separate firms he controlled, according to federal court records.

In April 2001, an investors group forced Lodestar into bankruptcy. The mining operation was "hopelessly out of control," wrote lawyers for the investment firm, Connecticut-based Wexford Capital. Rising maintenance costs at Lodestar's three big Kentucky mines signaled a "steady decline" in the quality of the company's equipment, the lawyers wrote.

Rennert and Lodestar officers declined to comment for this article. Lodestar attorneys have said in court papers that the company tried to conduct its mining operations in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

Contractors insulate owners

Growing numbers of coal companies hire contractors to supply and supervise miners, insulating themselves from the cost of worker accidents and deaths. The rate of contractor injuries underground rose 20 percent over the decade since 1992 and comprised a growing share of all underground injuries.

But MSHA does not collect key injury data about contractors, the Tribune found. The agency does not gather records showing the number of hours contract miners work at each mine, making it impossible to identify dangerous operations. MSHA is considering a method to log contractor hours at each mine.

In 1999, at Beefhide No. 2, an eastern Kentucky mine run for TECO Energy Inc. by contractors Jim and Harold Akers, miners saw a light drizzle of coal dust from the 42-inch-high roof.

"Watch that stuff right over your back!" David Ramey shouted to his partner. The rock ceiling "just started dripping," Ramey later told inspectors.

As Ramey and Ronnie Charles scuttled out on their knees, a chunk of shale smacked Ramey across his hips while another crushed Charles. It took several miners an hour to free Ramey. After he helped lift the gray rock from Charles' body, he sat by himself in the office trailer, with deep bruises blooming on his legs and back, and wept.

Federal inspectors concluded that the Akers' mine company was making 35-foot-wide cuts in the coal walls, nearly twice what is allowed in its roof-control plan. The timber posts that propped the roof were only an inch to 3 inches wide, not the 4 inches called for in the company's federally approved plan.

The company "showed reckless disregard in allowing this type of mining," MSHA inspector Gary Farmer wrote in his notes.

The Akers brothers did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the mine where Charles died, TECO Energy, a Florida utility, operates four other large Appalachian coal operations using a shifting array of some two dozen contracting companies with names such as Headache Coal Co., Scat Cat Coal Co. and Miracle Coal Co.

TECO lends some of its contractors operating capital, leases them equipment and dictates production levels, according to circuit court records in Pike County, Ky. But TECO Coal safety director David Blankenship said that for legal reasons the company cannot exert any control over its contractors' safety practices.

"We cannot get into anything that even smells of giving supervision or direction," Blankenship said, adding that if TECO exercised control over its contractors, the energy giant could be liable for damages from serious accidents.

Blankenship said TECO's mines would be safer if it were allowed more involvement in the operations of its contractors. "These small contractors can't afford the staff to go out and look at their safety systems," Blankenship said. But as things stand, he said, he cannot even track the safety records of TECO's contractors.

Today, Charles' wife, Tammy Lee, struggles to raise their 10-year-old special-needs child. She believes the mine operators suffered few consequences from the accident.

"It seems like they went unpunished," she said. "They have money falling out of their pockets and we're just trying to make it."

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The series

Sunday: 2,000 feet underground, a coal mining disaster unfolds.

Monday: Fatal decisions mark the scramble to save men and the mine.

Tuesday: In the heart of coal country, mine safety still suffers.

- Find the complete series, with photos and graphics, at chicagotribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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