October 9, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

“American Coal Co. repeatedly demonstrated its failure to comply with basic safety laws over a number of months, and for that it must be held accountable.”  (Asst. Secretary of Labor for MSHA Richard Stickler)

Yesterday, MSHA issued a news release announcing that the operator of the Galatia Mine in Saline County, Illinois was receving $1.46 million in penalties for scores of safety and health violations it’s wracked up over the last year.  The underground coal mine is owned by American Coal Company, a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp–the same corporate controller of the Utah Crandall Canyon mine at which nine men were killed and six injured in August 2007.  For many days after the massive mine collapse and rescue attempts, Mr. Robert Murray became (unfortunately) the public face and voice of the disaster. 

In response to MSHA’s hefty penalty assessment, a vice president of American Coal said:

MSHA is “trying to rehabilitate its own public image at the expense of mining companies and business.” 

The penalties were assessed under MSHA’s “flagrant violations” provisions which allow for much larger sanctions than the minimum $112 penalty.  The dangerous conditions found by inspectors included accumulation of combustible coal dust, loose and broken roof conditions along escapeways, and failing to de-energize equipment during maintenance tasks.

Last summer when the Crandall Canyon disaster was playing out on national television, the mine owner Robert Murray often tried to present himself as just a coal miner at heart.  When reporters began looking into the safety records of his mines and finding his operations had been assessed hundreds of violations, he tried to explain that the public just doesn’t understand how things work in the mining industry.  In my August 28, 2007 blog post “Bob Murray’s Toilet-Paper Problem,” I wrote about the Galatia mine which had received more than 900 safety and health violations in 2006.  Mr. Murray asserted that most of those 900 violations were for trivial items like not having toilet paper in the restrooms.

I reviewed all 975 violations cited in 2006 at Murray Energy’s coal mine in Galatia, Illinois, and only 3 of the 975 had anything to do with toilets or toilet paper.  Instead, I identified more than 190 violations for having an accumulation of combustible material (i.e., piles of coal and coal dust), nearly 70 for electrical-system problems, and more than 50 for inadequate roof or rib control (i.e., to prevent cave-ins).

I also identified nearly 50 violations for problems with the mine’s ventilation system, nearly 40 for inadequate pre-shift, on-shift or weekly examinations of the underground mine, a few dozen for violating rules concerning the type of equipment allowed at the mining face (i.e., where methane gas is most prevalent), ten citations for inadequate rockdusting (which is critically important for preventing coal dust explosions) and 19 violations of regulations on escapeways and an evacuation plan.   The exact same hazards found and associated with this stiff $1.46 million penalty.  And guess what?  None of them have to do with toilets or toilet paper.*

I applaud MSHA’s Stickler for using the flagrant violations provisions of MSHA’s penalty assessment regulations to let Murray Energy know the agency is serious about enforcing the law.  I’m encouraged also that these penalties were assessed as part of the regular inspection process and NOT as part of a fatality investigation–after a worker has already lost his life.  I hope we see more examples from MSHA of using inspections for their deterrent effect to protect miners’ health and safety.

*But having working toilets, hand-washing facilities and other basic sanitation is part of workers’ health and safety, so employers who fail to provide them should be required to correct that problem.

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