Officials: 2 coal miners dead after roof collapse in Kentucky coal mine with safety problems

By By Brett Barrouquere, AP
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Officials: 2 coal miners dead in Kentucky accident

PROVIDENCE, Ky. — A rescue team has found a second Kentucky miner dead after a roof collapse at an underground coal mine with a long history of safety problems.

Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing spokesman Dick Brown said the two miners were found dead Thursday after the accident at the Dotiki (doh-TEE’-kee) Mine in western Kentucky.

Rescue workers earlier found the body of one miner trapped under rock. They had to retreat for a time when the roof become unstable, sending down a shower of rocks.

Gov. Steve Beshear identified the miners as 27-year-old Justin Travis and 28-year-old Michael Carter.

State and federal records show more than 40 closure orders over safety violations since January 2009. Officials with mine operator Alliance Coal Co. didn’t return calls seeking comment.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

PROVIDENCE, Ky. (AP) — One miner died and another was missing after a roof collapse at an underground coal mine with a long history of safety problems, officials said Thursday.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the miner who died was still trapped under rock and he couldn’t be identified. Efforts continue to locate the second miner.

Gov. Steve Beshear said emergency crews had reached the site of the collapse, about four miles from the entrance to the Dotiki mine, and were “within an arm’s length” of the man when the roof became unstable and they had to retreat, Beshear said.

“About that time, the roof started moving again,” he said. “Rocks started falling again. And they had to pull back.”

Beshear identified the two miners as Justin Travis, 27, of Dixon, and Michael Carter, 28 of Hanson.

Workers were trying to shore up the roof so they could return to the collapse site, Beshear said.

Records show inspectors from the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing have issued 31 orders to close sections of the mine or to shut down equipment because of safety violations since January 2009. Those records also show an additional 44 citations for safety violations that didn’t result in closure orders.

MSHA records show the mine was cited 840 times by federal inspectors for safety violations since January 2009, and 11 times closure orders were issued.

The records show 214 of the citations were issued in the first four months of this year, and twice inspectors issued closure orders this year.

The accident happened while the miners were operating what’s known as a continuous miner, a toothy machine that digs coal for transport to the surface, said Ricki Gardenhire, a spokeswoman for the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

After Beshear met with the families in a church, many of them left without speaking to reporters. Some were weeping, others talked on cell phones. Many exchanged hugs.

Beshear told reporters the families understood why the rescuers had to pull back.

“They understand you have pay attention to the safety of the mine rescue team,” he said. “We are going to move as fast as we can.”

Charlie Wesley, an executive vice president for the coal company, said the last fatality inside the mine was in 1988.

“This is very unfortunate, very tragic,” Wesley said. “We will continue to work our way in to hopefully make this a rescue operation rather than a recovery operation.”

MSHA district director Carl Boone held out hope Thursday afternoon that one of the missing miners might be found alive.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell announced the death of the miner during a speech on the Senate floor. “I ask my colleagues and the American people to keep the miners, their families, and the rescue workers in their prayers,” McConnell said.

The mine is owned by Alliance Resource Partners, based in Tulsa, Okla. The company’s website says it purchased the mine in 1971 and produces high-sulfur coal there.

Alliance’s vice president of operations is Mine Safety and Health Administration veteran Kenneth A. Murray, a former district manager for the agency in eastern Kentucky who headed the investigation of a January 2006 fire that killed two men at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia.

The Dotiki mine was at least partially idled in 2004 when a supply tractor caught fire and spread flames to the coal, timbers and other equipment. The 70 miners who were underground were all safely evacuated and the mine returned to full production in about a month.

A worker died outside the mine in 1995 when the bulldozer he was operating fell into a cavity in a coal stock pile. He was buried in coal and suffocated.

Alliance primarily sells coal to electric utilities. It reported 3,090 full-time employees, $1.1 billion in assets and $1.2 billion in total revenues at the end of 2009.

The nation’s worst coal mine disaster in 40 years happened this month in West Virginia, where 29 men died in an explosion inside a mine owned by Massey Energy Co.

Kentucky has had one miner killed this year in a roof fall at a mine in southeastern Kentucky. Travis G. Brock, 29, was working at the Bledsoe Coal Co. at the Abner Branch mine in southern Leslie County.

The state’s worst mine disaster in recent years occurred four years ago when five miners died in at Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County. Two of the miners were killed immediately in the May 20, 2006, blast. Three others died of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to escape.

Kentucky led the nation in mining deaths last year with six in coal mines and one in a limestone quarry.

The mine accident should serve as a reminder to state officials of the need to fully staff regulatory agencies, said Steve Earl, a regional vice president of United Mine Workers of America.

Beshear said Wednesday that a budget impasse in Frankfort could force a partial government shutdown that could halt, at least temporarily, mine inspections and idle mine rescue teams unless lawmakers reach an agreement on a spending plan before July 1.

Earl called that unacceptable.

“This is not the time for the state of Kentucky to be cutting back on safety inspections and ending mine rescue teams,” he said. “They need to find the money somewhere.”

Valerie Willis, the principal of the West Hopkins School, an elementary and middle school in Nebo, said faculty and students were hoping for positive news from the mine.

“We are still in shock,” Willis said. “This, like any other tragedy in our county, affects all of us.”

Lexington attorney Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and former regulator, called the Dotiki rock fall tragic.

“The reality is that most miners die one at a time or a few at a time,” he said. “But it’s just as devastating to the families as when 29 miners die.”

Associated Press Writers Roger Alford in Frankfort, Tim Huber in Charleston, W.Va., Kristin Hall in Nashville, Tenn., and Lucas L. Johnson in Providence contributed to this story.

will not be displayed