McDowell mine practice long considered risky

McDowell mine practice long considered risky

More than five years ago, West Virginia regulators were urged to consider banning a practice in which coal miners pull coal from the pillars meant to hold up underground mine roofs.

This weekend, two more West Virginia miners died ”pulling pillars,” in the first deaths for the state’s coal industry this year.

In a November 2001 report, then-Gov. Bob Wise was encouraged to closely examine ”” and possibly ban or much more tightly restrict ”” ”retreat mining.”

During this especially dangerous procedure, miners remove the last bits of coal possible from pillars meant to hold up the mine roof, or remove entire pillars.

This is done as miners are moving out of a section, and mine roofs are expected to fall as miners pull the pillars.

Miners were pulling pillars Saturday morning at Brooks Run Mining Co.’s Cucumber Mine in McDowell County when a roof fall killed two employees.

On Sunday, Brooks Run identified the miners who died as roof bolter James D. Thomas, 48, of North Tazewell, Va., and utilityman Pete Poindexter, 33, of Rock.

In a prepared statement, Brooks Run said a ”localized section of the mine roof unexpectedly collapsed and fell on the miners.”

”We’re extremely saddened by this tragic accident,” said Randy McMillion, Brooks Run’s president. ”Right now our full attention is directed toward attending to the miners’ families and their coworkers, as well as providing our full cooperation to the ongoing investigation.”

The accident was an ugly start to the new year, especially following 2006, when the 24 miners killed on the job in West Virginia were the most since 1981.

In his report to Wise, longtime mine-safety advocate Davitt McAteer cautioned that pillaring is ”an especially dangerous extraction practice which should be critically reviewed and/or significantly revised, with adequate requirements and criteria drawn up to provide protection to the miners engaged in such techniques.

”New standards of safety and health precautions need to be developed, including engineering criteria for mining in previously disturbed coal beds and seams, and these new standards must be applied before such methods are approved by state or federal regulations,” wrote McAteer, who headed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during President Clinton’s administration.

McAteer went on to recommend that retreat mining be ”very carefully reviewed and critically examined” to determine whether its approval should be continued.

Wise acted on some of McAteer’s recommendations, such as more closely scrutinizing coal contractors and increasing fines for safety violations. But Wise took no action on retreat mining.

Gov. Joe Manchin has also not addressed the issue in his mine-safety reform efforts, either in a bill passed in one day last year or in his latest legislation proposed last week.

Mine-safety experts, though, have long recognized the dangers of retreat mining.

Between 1978 and 1986, 67 roof-fall deaths ”” about one-third of the total ”” occurred during retreat mining, according to a government study.

Between 1989 and 1996, pulling pillars accounted for 10 percent of underground coal production, according to a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. At the same time, the practice accounted for 25 percent of underground coal mining deaths, the NIOSH report said.

Between 1996 and 2005, at least 13 of the 63 roof fall deaths nationwide occurred during retreat mining, according to a Gazette analysis of MSHA records. Seven of those 13 deaths occurred in West Virginia, the analysis showed.

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