Special impact inspections at more than a dozen mines last month found “persistently bad behavior” among some mine operators, according to theMine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which conducted the inspections.

MSHA announced yesterday that inspections conducted last month at 13 coal and four metal/nonmetal mine operations resulted in 288 citations, orders and safeguards. The coal mines were issued 170 citations, 15 orders and one safeguard; the metal/nonmetal mines were issued 90 citations and 12 orders.

These inspections, which began in force last April following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, involve mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns, according to MSHA. Those concerns include high numbers of violations or closure orders; operator tactics like giving advance notice of inspections in order to prevent inspectors from observing violations; frequent hazard complaints or hotline calls; plan compliance issues; inadequate workplace examinations; high numbers of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane liberation, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.

Wilcoal Mining, Inc.’sTri-State One Mine in Claiborne County, TN has repeatedly has been targeted for an impact inspection over the last eight months and was put on notice of a potential pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards under Section 104(e) of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

Federal inspectors captured the phones to prevent a heads-up

When a team of federal inspectors arrived at Tri-State One on the morning of Dec. 3, 2010, they quickly captured and monitored the phones to prevent anyone from alerting operators about their arrival. That visit ended with 17 104(a) citations and four 104(d)(2) orders, including 104(d)(2) orders for accumulations of combustible coal dust of up to 24 inches in depth covering extensive areas where miners work and travel. Such accumulations pose a fire or explosion hazard. MSHA also issued Wilcoal a 104(d)(2) order for not properly maintaining a lifeline in the mine's secondary escapeway. Coal and rock dust on the lifeline and reflective markers could not be readily seen by miners to effectively escape to the surface.

Wilcoal’s troubles continued in the new year. During the mine's next regular safety and health inspection on Jan. 19, 2011, MSHA found more violations, including accumulations of combustible materials, failure to maintain proper clearance on a beltline and inadequately supported ribs — violations that required equipment to be shut down and coal production to cease.

Miners exposed to a 50- to 90-foot fall

Further north,Dragon Products Co.found itself on the receiving end of 53 citations and ten orders, after an impact inspection conducted at the company’s Thomaston Cement Plant in Knox County, Maine from Nov. 29 through Dec. 9, 2010. The orders should not have come as a surprise; six of the ten were for failure to abate previously cited hazardous conditions. Inspectors found that work orders had been entered into the system, but no corresponding corrective action had taken.

The violations at the plant noted by inspectors included: a dust dump perimeter drain roadway and retention pond that were not bermed, creating an overturn hazard with an 8-foot drop off; missing railings from the roof top of the burner floor and a lack of adequate warning signs which exposed miners to a 50- to 90-foot fall.

A December inspection at theLeft Fork Mining Co. Inc.'sStraight Creek No. 1 Mine in Bell County, Ky., resulted in three 104(d)(2) orders for an inadequate pre-shift examination of the mechanized mining unit, an inadequate on-shift examination of the conveyer belt and accumulation of combustible materials. These orders effectively closed one entire section of the mine. One day later, MSHA issued a 104(b) order for allowing water to accumulate in a bleeder air course, a potential disruption to the mine's ventilation system. The mine is currently shut down under MSHA's order until the operator completes the pumping of water from the bleeder entry. Due to the mine closure, Straight Creek did not receive an impact inspection last month. The mine, which has been the subject of a number of impact inspections, received a letter last November putting it on notice of a potential pattern of violations.

"In spite of our relentless attempts to make mine operators accountable for their workers' safety and health, some continue to flout their responsibilities," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "While we are seeing improvements at a number of operations, the persistently bad behavior at others underscores the need for tougher legislation and stronger enforcement tools. As the condition of the Wilcoal mine demonstrates, some operators know that MSHA cannot be at a mine all the time."

Since April 2010, MSHA has conducted 198 impact inspections. These inspections have resulted in 3,758 citations, 363 orders and 13 safeguards.