coal mineThe Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has released details of a number of recent incidents showing that the problem of advance notice of inspections is still...a problem.

This despite federal charges against Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine superintendent Gary May that included conspiracy to give advance notification of mine inspections. May admitted to that and other violations in a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. May testified that the unlawful practices helped UBB mine operator Massey Energy avoid detection of violations by federal and state inspectors.

"Upper Big Branch is a tragic reminder that operators and miners alike need to understand advance notice can prevent inspectors from finding hazards that can claim miners' lives," said MSHA chief Joseph Main recently.

His words appear to be falling on deaf ears, if MSHA records from last month are any indication.

For example, on March 22, agency inspectors responded to a hazard complaint call about conditions at Gateway Eagle Coal Co. LLC's Sugar Maple Mine in Boone County, W.Va. A truck driver with J&N Trucking reportedly alerted mine personnel by citizens band radio of the inspectors' arrival. The inspection turned up 14 violations for advance notification, accumulations of combustible material, and inadequate preshift and on-shift examinations, as well as a failure to comply with the current ventilation plan, maintain the lifeline, maintain permissibility of mobile equipment and maintain fire fighting equipment.

During Feb. 29 inspection at Rhino Eastern LLC's Eagle No. 2 Mine in Wyoming County, W.Va., a dispatcher's decision to shut down the belts prompted a call from the section foreman about his actions. The dispatcher responded that an MSHA inspector was at the mine. During this inspection, three citations were issued for failure to comply with the roof control and ventilation plans. In addition, a citation was issued to Applachian Security, a contractor, for providing advance notification of the MSHA inspection. Rhino Eastern's Eagle No. 1 Mine was placed on potential pattern of violations status in November 2010 and again in August 2011 after a miner was killed in a rib collapse, and the mine's compliance record deteriorated.

On Feb. 13, the dispatcher for Metinvest B V's Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., notified the belt foreman over the mine telephone that federal and state inspectors were headed underground. The mine operator was issued a citation and, to abate it, MSHA required that all certified foremen and dispatchers be trained in the requirements of the Mine Act regarding advance notification, and that a notice be conspicuously posted in the mine office to ensure future compliance with the Mine Act.  

Mains said current penalties are not large enough to deter the practice.