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Years Later, Penalties Reinstated for Mine Tragedy Response

By Roy Maurer  1/16/2014
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Just days after the eighth anniversary of the explosion at Sago Mine, which killed 12 miners on Jan. 2, 2006, a federal review board has reinstated penalties against a coal company for failing to immediately notify federal authorities and mine-rescue teams.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission said the nearly 90 minutes that passed before Wolf Run Mining Co. contacted the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and mine rescuers demonstrated “unwarranted failure” and “high negligence.”

The decision, announced Jan. 14, 2014, overturns Administrative Law Judge Jerold Feldman’s 2010 finding of mitigating circumstances and reinstates $14,500 in penalties originally proposed by MSHA.

The explosion at Wolf Run’s Sago Mine, in Upshur County, W. Va., is considered the worst mining disaster in U.S. history.

“Although eight years have passed, the memories of that tragic day have not diminished,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “We are grateful for the commission’s decision in this case reaffirming the importance of immediate reporting of mine accidents.”

Although the explosion occurred at 6:26 a.m. EST, the mining company didn’t contact the MSHA until 7:50 a.m. and didn’t make an effort to reach a mine-rescue team member at his home until 8:04 a.m. Consequently, the agency issued citations to Wolf Run for not immediately notifying it of the explosion, not complying with the mine’s emergency evacuation and firefighting program, and not immediately contacting the mine-rescue team.

Feldman affirmed the violations but reduced the negligence designations from high to moderate and decreased the penalties.
He asserted that commission case law permitted the company a reasonable opportunity to investigate the event before contacting the proper authorities. He also reasoned that the mine operator’s negligence in not immediately reporting the incident was mitigated by management’s wish to attempt a rescue. Moreover, Feldman took into account that the disaster occurred on a national holiday (observance of New Year’s Day) when MSHA and state offices were closed, making it difficult to reach authorities.

The commission ruled that Feldman incorrectly determined when Wolf Run had a duty to notify MSHA and mine-rescue teams and incorrectly treated the delay as a mitigating factor, instead of an aggravating factor.

“Although an operator should be afforded a reasonable opportunity to investigate, once it is determined that a reportable accident has occurred, an operator must act immediately to report the incident,” the commission wrote in its published decision.

The commission found that Feldman was incorrect in stating that “Wolf Run’s delay was not motivated by a desire or reluctance to avoid notification. Rather, the delay is attributable to the fact that Wolf Run was conflicted over its concern for evacuating survivors, its preoccupation with establishing contact with the missing victims, and its responsibility to notify MSHA.” Instead, the commission concluded that “the record strongly suggests that Wolf Run management was motivated not to contact MSHA immediately in order to avoid MSHA enforcement.”

The company’s intention to assist underground personnel during the emergency, while admirable, is the type of conduct that regulations are intended to address and prevent, the commission noted. “The moments after a mining accident are difficult and frantic, but crucial to an effective response is strict adherence to an operator’s emergency plan and to the relevant MSHA standards governing conduct after an accident occurs. … Emergency response plan procedures are crafted and put in place to counteract the intense pressures of this type of high-stress incident in the most rational, calmest, and safest manner for all involved.”

The commission reminded the coal company that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act requires mine operators to contact the MSHA immediately after an accident and grants the agency the authority to direct rescue and recovery efforts. “Sending miners underground in the aftermath of an explosion puts additional miners at risk before a mine is secured and deemed safe to enter,” it wrote.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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