WHARTON, W.Va. — Two miners who were killed on the job Monday night worked in a coalfield that had so many safety problems federal officials deemed it a “pattern violator,” a designation reserved for the worst offenders.
Brody Mine No. 1 was one of only three mines last year to earn the label that regulators have emphasized more since the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 miners about 10 miles away.
The designation subjects the mine to greater scrutiny from regulators, and it’s the strongest tool the Mine Safety and Health Administration has, said Kevin Stricklin, the agency’s administrator of coal mine safety and health. “We just do not have the ability or authority to shut a mine just because it has so many violations,” Stricklin said Tuesday.
Brody No. 1 is owned by a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, which in its annual report last December blamed the problems on a previous owner and said it was “vigorously contesting” the designation.
The company said the workers were killed during a severe coal burst, in which high-speed coal shoots at anyone in the way. They had been doing retreat mining, a risky method that involves yanking supporting pillars of coal from inside the mine and letting the roof collapse as miners and equipment work their way out.
“Preliminarily, it looks like it was a rock outburst from the wall of the mine, which basically inundated the entries with coal and debris,” said Stricklin.
In October, Brody No. 1 was one of three coal mines added to a Pattern of Violations list for repeatedly breaking federal health and safety regulations over the previous year. It was cited for 253 serious violations.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the violations could have had anything to do with a coal burst.
Since January, six accidents have occurred at Brody No. 1; in one, a miner’s finger was caught in machinery and a portion had to be amputated, according to online federal records.
Brody No. 1 employs about 270 workers. Killed were Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, and Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight.
Both men liked to hunt and fish, and Hensley was always working on an old car in his garage, said his son. “He took the good with the bad,” Caleb Hensley said. “He understood that bad things happened, but when they did, he’d keep his chin up, that no matter what, things would be OK.”