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2 Die In W.Va. Mine With Troubled Safety Record

Two coal miners died in a mine accident in Boone County, W.Va., Monday night, in a mine with a troubled safety record.

The accident occurred at the Brody Mine No.1, which is owned by Patriot Coal. In a statement, the company says the deaths were caused by "a severe coal burst as the mine was conducting retreat mining operations."

A burst occurs when the downward pressure of the earth sitting above the mine forces coal or rock to shoot out from the rock walls.

"Retreat mining" is a dangerous practice that follows the completion of mining of the main coal seam. As miners retreat from the mined-out seam, they mine the pillars of coal that had been left earlier to hold up the mine roof.

Federal and state investigators are working to determine the precise cause of the accident.

"We are fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies to investigate this incident," said Mike Day, Patriot's executive vice president for operations.

NPR's review of federal mine safety data shows that the Brody mine was cited for 238 safety violations in the last 15 months and had a rate of violations more than twice the national average for underground coal mines. The company says that's a 40 percent improvement in Brody's previous violations rate.

The mine's injury rate last year was more than three times the national rate and since 2007, Brody has had injury rates ranging from two to five times the rates for all coal mines. More than 300 Brody miners were injured since then. Last year, the mine was cited for underreporting injuries.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration staged six surprise blitz inspections at the mine since 2010. Only five other mines have had as many or more of what MSHA calls "mine impact inspections," which were instituted four years ago after 29 coal miners were killed at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. MSHA also cited the mine in October for a "pattern of violations," a rarely used designation that triggers additional oversight.

Patriot Coal challenged the "pattern of violations" designation and the matter is now before an administrative law court. The company argues that it didn't own Brody when most of the relevant violations occurred. But, as Mine Safety and Health News reports, a Patriot subsidiary appeared to control operations at the mine, which was run by a contractor, before Patriot became the official owner on December 31, 2012.

In a statement issued in October, Patriot said "the Brody mine has made considerable and measurable progress toward improved safety and compliance" since it formally purchased the mine. "Additionally," the statement said, "all former officers and key mine-level managers at Brody were replaced shortly after the purchase was concluded."

Federal data analyzed by NPR shows that Brody has shown improvement in some significant categories of violations. But it had more safety citations considered highly negligent (122) last year than in any year since 2005 and more citations considered reckless (5) than in any year since 2008.

On 13 occasions last year, inspectors found conditions considered so threatening to miners they closed portions of the mine until corrections were made. That was another record for the mine. These are incidents involving what MSHA considers "unwarrantable failures" by mine managers to follow the law and protect miners.

The company was cited for: failing to inspect for excessive coal dust, which can feed explosions; failure to inspect for roof problems, which can lead to rock falls; and failure to file roof control and ventilation plans, which are supposed to anticipate and prevent rock falls and methane gas ignitions. Patriot is contesting those citations.

A company spokeswoman did not respond directly to NPR's request for comment on Brody's safety record. Instead, investor relations vice president Janine Orf referred to Patriot's earlier statements contesting its "pattern of violations" designation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.