Tough News From Upper Big Branch South, and New Data

Some may remember that at one time, I used to maintain a personal blog at Transferred here because WordPress seems to work better for me now. To avoid confusion: the past post about Scretary Solis going underground was a test from some time ago — not current news

Wrenching news on the doorstep: rescuers were pushed back again early this morning by smoke. Rescuers now hoping a borehole camera will show something.

An explosion can start a mine fire. And/or a fire can ignite an explosion if there is 5 to 15% methane and sufficient oxygen.

Analysis of the mine’s safety record has started. Ellen Smith, my editor at Mine Safety and Health News, gave permission to post this info, which was shared last night with subscribers. We did our own analysis of just the last 4 months — likely to be most relevant — and have some info that I think has not yet been published elsewhere.

In addition, Ellen is letting me post 2009 statistics she compiled on enforcement at Big Branch other large mines, substantiating that the number of withdrawal orders at Upper Big Branch has been exceptionally high.

Enforcement Records Document Ventilation Concerns At Upper Big Branch Mine

As efforts to locate the last four missing miners continued at Massey Energy’s Performance Coal Upper Big Branch Mine – South in Raleigh County, Va., in the face of interruptions from high methane levels, state and federal regulators continued a regular program of family and media briefings on the rescue’s progress. At the same time MSHA also began to post detailed information about the mine’s prior enforcement record on its website.

Twenty-five miners are known to have perished and two more to have been injured by the explosion at about 3:00 p.m. on Monday. The accident is the worst in the mining industry since at least 1984, when 27 miners died in a Utah coal mine fire.

The coordinated process of information release has so far appeared in marked contrast to problems after the Sago mine explosion in 2006 and the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in 2007. At Sago, officials allowed a false rumor to spread uncorrected that all the missing miners had survived. At Crandall Canyon, one TV news crew was actually allowed to enter the mine, which later had another collapse, killing three rescuers.

Among documents posted by MSHA by late Thursday were details of selected past enforcement actions; summary safety statistics on the mine, the controlling company and the coal industry; a thumbnail schematic of the mine map, plus large files containing more complete mine maps; the mine’s emergency response plan; and the control order issued by MSHA in the emergency.

The sketch map indicated a large, central mined-out area skirted by the active workings, with some 15 seals constructed to separate the abandoned zone from the working areas.

While the cause of the explosion is unknown, the seals are certain to receive intense scrutiny. Congress and MSHA strengthened seal requirements in the wake of the two severe explosions in 2006, one explosion originating behind mine seals and the other near them.

The Upper Big Branch mine’s ventilation plan remained to be released by MSHA, but will certainly also get a hard look.

A “new'” fan, at the far end of the active workings “is just a bleeder fan, and won’t handle too much air — maybe 30,000 to 50,000 (my guess),” commented one mining professor, based on the sketch map before the full map was available. “Thus the main ventilation job is being handled by the two other fans, which are located a long way from the active workings….generally speaking, this set-up is prone to high leakage. The vast amount of sealed workings is worrisome, of course.

“Scaling from the map, it looks like a little over 4 miles from the main fans to the longwall panel (mouth), which is a long way. It appears from some of the miners’ interviews, or family members, that ventilation was a problem — even sent the crew home one day. So it doesn’t appear that maintaining ventilation on the longwall and the other working areas was easy,” the specialist finished.

The agency data retrieval system showed 165 enforcement actions by MSHA at the operation since last Dec. 1. Nine of these were orders of withdrawal.

Four unwarrantable-failure orders concerned alleged violations of §75.370(a)(1), which requires the mine operator to follow an approved ventilation plan.

On March 9, an MSHA inspector wrote, “The approved mine ventilation plan, approved 8/09/09 and re-approved 1/22/10 was not being followed in the tailgate entries of the longwall panel. The air was going outby in the No. 5-7 entries from the longwall face (return air) to the mouth of the section instead of intake air going inby from the mouth of the section to the longwall tail. The regulator at survey station 22412 was not present and instead was a permanent stopping blocking intake air from ventilating the tailgate entries.”

That condition, which the inspector rated non-serious, was corrected by March 11.

Two other alleged re-routings of ventilation air, on Jan 7, were cited as unwarrantable failures, earning the mine two withdrawal orders and proposed civil penalties totaling $136,142. Those violations were rated as serious.

In a fourth unwarrantable-failure order citing §75.370(a)(1), an inspector wrote this March 2, “The…minimum amount of air in the last open crosscut is not maintained at 15,000 CFM. When checked with an anemometer only 7,448 CFM was found in the last open crosscut, 2 to 3 entry.” That was considered serious.

A further unwarrantable-failure order, last December, alleged a violation of §75.364(a)(1), which requires weekly gas checks in unsealed, worked-out areas.

“An examination by a certified person has not been conducted for the third panel (non pillar panel) off of the right return for the No. 3 section,” the inspector wrote. “Also, an examination at evaluation points 60 and 61, as designated on the ventilation map, have not been conducted. The last dates found were 4/15/2009 and these areas have not been recorded in the designated weekly examination book for the last six months.” The failure to conduct the required examinations was listed as non-S&S, however.

MSHA cited 48 more alleged ventilation violations under section 104(a) at the mine in the same period. Only six of these additional violations were classified as significant and substantial, however.

A single alleged ventilation violation, cited on Dec. 30, had no termination date listed in the agency data system. Cited under section 104(a), the apparently uncorrected alleged violation of §75.370(a)(1) was listed as non-S&S. Details of that citation were not yet available.

Another unwarrantable-failure order, on Jan. 11, stated, “One bottom roller [of a belt conveyor] was running in accumulation of combustible materials, cross over bar was rubbing top of the bottom belt, and a 2nd bottom roller was stuck and the belt had rubbed a flat groove, one quarter inch deep into the roller, located on the #1 south belt, thirty feet outby break #5 and extended for a distance of thirty feet. [Name Redacted] (Fire Boss) said that [Name Redacted] (Fire Boss) had found this problem on Saturday January 09, 2010 and that the section crew had been working on it. At the time of this inspection no one was working on this section of belt. The operator engage in aggravated conduct by his failure to correct the known hazard before running the belt,” MSHA stated.

The standard cited was §75.1731(a), which requires that damaged conveyor belt parts be promptly repaired, especially if they could cause a fire.

Last Nov. 16 a company mine examiner was overcome by smoke while fighting an incipient fire from a hot bearing on a belt conveyor, the agency database indicated. The injury was severe enough to cause some lost worktime.

Alleged violations of §75.400, which prohibits accumulations of combustible materials, were cited by MSHA at the mine 13 times since December 1, with only four of those violations rated S&S. All of the §75.400 violations were abated.

One §75.400 citation, on March 15, stated, “At the drive unit of the long wall belt line located behind the drive is an accumulation of mud and slop that is up to 10 inches deep and extends from rib-to-rib and is 30 feet long. The slop is runny and has spread to the belt starter box and track where it has covered the electrical mats at the starter.”

On March 24, MSHA issued a 104(b) noncompliance withdrawal order stating, “No apparent effort was made by the operator to remove accumulations located at the Longwall Mother Drive Belt.” That order was lifted the same day.

Last Dec. 14 the agency issued an imminent danger withdrawal order that read, “Miner’s have been required to work and travel in dark-murky water from levels measuring 12 inches up to 48 inches. The mine floor under the water contains slipping and tripping hazards that cannot be seen due unleveled bottom from heaving of the mine floor in the area, extraneous materials and slick rocks. This condition poses hazards related to tripping and falling in water up to 48 inches that could result in drowning,” the inspector stated. MSHA lifted that order only on Feb. 2.

The Upper Big Branch Mine got a warning letter from MSHA in December 2007, stating that it might have a pattern of violations. That finding was based in part of several significant violations of §75.400. The mine apparently improved its record enough to avoid actual pattern sanctions.

One unwarrantable-failure order at the mine, this February, was for allegedly failing to follow the roof control plan.

Total alleged violations at the mine increased from fewer than 200 in 2008 to more than 500 last year, records showed. Citations and orders alleging an unwarrantable failure to comply, issued under sections 104(d)(1) and 104(d)(2), climbed from 5 to 50 at the operation in the same period.

In 2008, the mine’s lost workday injury rate was 6.07 compared with a national average of 4.26 for similar operations, the data retrieval system showed. In 2009 the mine’s rate was 5.81 compared with a national average of 4.03. Rates are figured on a base of 200,000 employee-hours.

The mine reported 211 employees in the final quarter of 2009.

Comparisons of Underground Bituminous Coal Mines for 2009

Mine/Operator/Controller: Upper Big Branch Mine – Performance Coal – Massey Energy
Hours Worked by miners: 482,132
Coal Produced: 1.2 million tons
Number of Citations: 458
Number of Orders: 56
Proposed Penalties: $897,325

Mine: Deer Creek Mine – Energy West Mining Co. – Pacificorp.
Hours Worked by Miners: 613,384
Coal Produced: 3.8 million tons
Number of Citations: 154
Number of Orders: 2 (Only 1 -104(d)(2) order since 1995)
Proposed Penalties: $60,362

Mine: Baily Mine, Consol Pennsylvania Coal Co. – Consol Energy Inc.
Hours Worked by Miners: 1,930,802
Coal Produced: 10.2 million tons
Number of Citations: 527
Number of Orders: 0
Proposed Penalties: $334,266

Mine: No. 7 Mine – Jim Walter Resources Inc. – Walter Energy Inc.
Hours Worked by Miners: 1,837,646
Coal Produced: 2.8 million tons
Number of Citations: 380
Number of Orders: 4
Proposed Penalties: $276,783

Mine: West Ridge Mine – West Ridge Resources – Robert Murray
Hours Worked by Miners: 681,307
Coal Produced: 3 million tons
Number of Citations: 299
Number of Orders: 8

Mine: Deep Mine No. 7 – Argus Energy WV LLC -James Booth
Hours Worked by Miners: 681,307
Coal Produced: 3 million tons
Number of Citations: 299
Number of Orders: 8
Proposed Penalties: $225,671

Mine: Powhatan No. 6 Mine – Ohio Valley Coal Co. – Robert Murray
Hours Worked by Miners: 1,284,707
Coal Produced: 6.7 million tons
Number of Citations: 399
Number of Orders: 4
Proposed Penalties: $246,449

Mine: Aracoma Alma Mine #1 – Aracoma Coal Co. – Massey Energy Co.
Hours Worked by Miners: 325,979
Coal Produced: 694,850
Number of Citations: 303
Number of Orders: 11
Proposed Penalties: $592,993

Mine: Aracoma Alma Mine #1 – Aracoma Coal Co. – Massey Energy Co.
Hours Worked by Miners: 325,979
Coal Produced: 694,850
Number of Citations: 303
Number of Orders: 11
Proposed Penalties: $592,993

Mine: Kingston No 1 – Kingston Mining Inc. – Alpha Natural Resources
Hours Worked by Miners: 255,847
Coal Produced: 531,910
Number of Citations: 65
Number of Orders: 0
Proposed Penalties: $21,388

Mine: Imperial Mine – Wolf Run Mining – International Coal Group
Hours Worked by Miners: 221,897
Coal Produced: 697,122
Number of Citations: 152
Number of Orders: 0
Proposed Penalties: $112,611

Mine: Federal No. 2 – Eastern Associated Coal – Patriot Coal Corp.
Hours Worked by Miners: 1,069,558
Coal Produced: 3.8 million tons
Number of Citations: 372
Number of Orders: 6
Proposed Penalties: $189,379

Some may remember that at one time, I used to maintain a personal blog at Transferred here because WordPress seems to work much more efficiently for me these days.


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