Mine Fire Warning Thwarted!
Mine fire warnings thwarted
U.S. inspector at Aracoma urged temporary shutdown
Sunday, April 23, 2006
By Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MELVILLE, W.Va. -- A federal mine inspector who wanted to close a portion of the Aracoma Mining Co.'s Alma No. 1 mine that he considered unsafe was told by his superior to back off, a fellow employee says. Days later, a fire erupted along a conveyor belt in that section of the mine killing Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47, and Donald I. Bragg, 33.
The men apparently became lost in a cloud of smoke that pushed into their escape route because sections of a required ventilation wall were missing.
The Aracoma fire, which broke out 17 days after a more widely publicized disaster at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., has drawn intense scrutiny from federal investigators who now believe important safety rules were overlooked or ignored.
Minness Justice, an inspector with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told fellow MSHA employee Danny Woods that he believed dangerous amounts of spilled coal and dust had been allowed to accumulate along the belt line, raising the risk of a fire, and that the belt's fire suppression system was inadequate, Mr. Woods said.
"He was just told to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal," Mr. Woods said. "He came up and told me he was told to do certain things and the inspectors before him hadn't done a proper job."
Conditions on the belt line were considered especially dangerous because MSHA had allowed Aracoma to install the conveyor on the same route through which air was fed to the miners farther inside, meaning a fire was at risk of sending smoke toward occupied areas of the mine instead of to the outside.
The waiver was granted on several conditions. First among them was that the mine owners install an early warning fire detection system that worked by monitoring carbon monoxide levels.
State and federal officials who spoke on condition they not be named also believe someone inside the mine office repeatedly reset the monitor in the early stages of the fire Jan. 19, effectively short-circuiting the alarm that should have gone out to the men inside. According to the same sources, someone later attempted to delete records of the early alerts from the mine's computer system, but computer technicians brought in by MSHA investigators retrieved the deleted data.
MSHA referred the matter to federal prosecutors last month.
West Virginia's office of Miner Health Safety and Training cited Aracoma for failing to promptly notify it of a fire in the mine.
An inspector's notes for the citation, issued March 31, said the fire began at approximately 5 p.m., an indication that they had discovered a discrepancy between the computer record and the later time, somewhere around 5:36 p.m., first given for the fire's outbreak.
At the time of the incident, Robert Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary for mine safety, said the system alarm went off at 5:36 and that a dispatcher ordered an evacuation nine minutes later.
Aracoma was cited by the state for failing to notify it of the fire until 7:30 that night.
Similarly, MSHA officials later posted a "best practices" advisory on their Web site next to the record of the mine fatalities, including the advice: "Immediately investigate any indication of fire. Treat an alarm as if a fire exists until proven otherwise."
A spokesman for Massey Energy, the Richmond, Va., company that owns Aracoma, did not return repeated telephone calls requesting comment. Similarly, MSHA officials have declined to describe the progress of the investigation, although both MSHA and U.S. Attorney Charles Miller have acknowledged the opening of a criminal probe into the Aracoma fire.
At the time the fire broke out, according to statements by men inside the mine, including a member of the rescue team, sections of a wall designed to separate the belt line from the air intake, which was to serve as an escape route in emergencies, had been removed.
Mr. Justice, an inspector from MSHA's Logan office, said he had attempted to issue a closure order on the belt line in the weeks before the fire, but was stopped by his supervisors, according to Mr. Woods.
Mr. Woods, a former inspector who now works in the agency's educational field services office in the same district, said Mr. Justice approached him at the wake for one of the two miners and told him he had seen large deposits of spilled coal along the belt line and had concerns about its fire suppression system.
According to Mr. Woods, Mr. Justice was instructed to forgo a closure order and, instead, issue a citation ordering Aracoma to clean up along the belt line. A citation would allow the company to continue running coal on the belt, with a deadline to correct deficiencies.
Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for MSHA, said the allegations were under investigation.
Mr. Woods said he was told by Mr. Justice that the deadline arrived the day of the fire. Mr. Justice did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He gave a lengthy statement to federal investigators about what he found, logged in a thick file labeled "Minness Justice Exhibit A."
"We take these allegations very seriously and we are currently conducting not only the Alma accident investigation, but also an internal one," Mr. Fillpot said.
In the days after the Aracoma blaze, state and federal investigators issued hundreds of citations for safety violations, including state citations that buttress Mr. Woods' account that accumulations of flammable coal waste were being overlooked along the conveyor belt.
"At this mine, evidence observed on the active No. 2 section revealed that excessive, dangerous accumulations of fine, dry coal is being allowed to accumulate around the No. 2 section tailpiece," state inspector Eugene White wrote. "The section tailpiece tail roller is completely engulfed by loose, dry coal fines," Mr. White wrote.
Under such conditions, safety experts say, friction from the coal's mechanical pieces could ignite the dust, triggering a fire.
Six days later, state inspectors cited Aracoma for failing to show records that the fire suppression system on the conveyor belt had been given monthly tests.
"Records indicate the system is being examined only visually, weekly," Mr. White wrote.
One of the first rescuers to enter the mine in search of the missing men gave a statement March 3 that described visible safety defects inside Aracoma.
Timmy P. Morgan, a mine rescue team member, said ventilation walls were missing, causing smoke to wash into the faces of men fleeing the mine. He said the conveyor belt at which the fire began was surrounded by waste coal, and that a map given rescuers didn't reflect reality. The belt line's fire suppression system, he said, sent only a useless trickle of water onto the blaze it was supposed to extinguish.
"A lot of people were complaining about the map being wrong," Mr. Morgan said in a statement to Tonya Mounts Hatfield, an attorney for the widow of one of the miners who died. After Mr. Morgan died of a heart attack April 9, Mrs. Hatfield made his account available to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
His description of a defective fire suppression system, as well as missing ventilation walls, called stoppings, matches accounts of some investigators and the assertions of a former federal mine safety inspector who said he received information from the inspector who last examined the Aracoma Mine before the Jan. 19 fire.
(Dennis B. Roddy can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1965. )