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MSHA releases report on Letcher miner’s death

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued a report on the results of its investigation into the mining death of Phillip Newton, who was killed in a roof fall on Dec. 16, 2009, at Sapphire Coal Co.’s Sandlick II Mine in Letcher County.

Newton, 34, of Thornton, died when a piece of mine roof fell on him. It measured 13 feet long by 6 feet wide by 12 to 16 inches thick.

Ken Ward Jr., who covers the coal industry for the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette,
reported Tuesday on his blog “Coal Tattoo” that investigators have ruled the accident could have been prevented if the roof plan MSHA had approved for the mine was being followed properly.

Wrote Ward of MSHA’s finding:

“Like all underground coal mines, the Sandlick II operation had an MSHAapproved roof control plan. It called for using a certain number of a certain type and size of roof bolts installed in a certain pattern, meant to hold up the roof once the coal was removed.

“And like many roof control plans, this one specified that if the company encountered bad roof conditions, it was to use ‘supplemental roof support,’ in this case a larger and diff erent type of roof bolts. The roof control plan also called for the company to dig coal in a certain way, so that underground tunnels measured a certain width and were laid out a certain way — again in a scheme that was projected to hold up the roof and protect the miners.

“And, the plan allowed Sapphire Coal to only make certain sized cuts of coal — in this case no more than 40 feet in depth. And, those cuts had to be reduced, to 20 feet, if poor roof conditions were encountered.

“In this instance, Sapphire had encountered poor roof conditions. But, MSHA inspectors found the company and its mine foreman didn’t follow the approved roof control plans requirements for such conditions. Here’s how:

“— The company changed the orientation of the coal pillars that were going to be mined, a move that alters the entire way the roof control in the mine will work — in this case providing less roof support – without first getting MSHA approval to do so.

“— The mine operator did not reduce the size of the coal cuts to the required 20 feet. Worse than that — they exceeded the maximum cut (40 feet) allowed when roof conditions were good, by mining 49-foot-deep cuts.”

In its report, MSHA also noted that the mine foreman did not perform a proper pre-shift examination, in that the adverse roof conditions were present, but the foreman did not respond by telling the miners to alter their normal coalcutting plans accordingly. The report also noted that the mining machine operator (Newton) was incorrectly positioned too far ‘inky,’ and therefore not under the proper roof supports.

“MSHA issued five enforcement actions, including four orders that cited the company for ‘unwarrantable failure’ to comply with mandatory safety standards.”

Ward wrote that MSHA’s report concluded that “the accident occurred because the operator did not take the necessary steps to prevent these conditions.”


MSHA’s report is available on the Web at http:// www.msha.gov/FATALS/ 2009/FTL09c18.asp.

Ward’s blog “Coal Tattoo” can be accessed at blogs.wvgazette. com/coaltattoo/.

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