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Aracoma miners' widows sue MSHA over 2006 fire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Widows of two Massey Energy Co. miners killed in a January 2006 fire have sued the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for not citing major violations that, if corrected, could have prevented the deaths at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The law allows private parties to sue the federal government for damages caused by people acting on the government's behalf.

The lawsuit alleges that, before the fire on Jan. 19, 2006, MSHA inspectors missed or ignored significant violations of federal regulations governing mine ventilation, control of combustible materials, miner training, monitoring systems and pre-shift safety examinations.

"In every instance, MSHA noted the failure of its inspection personnel to inspect and remedy egregious safety violations that existed in the Alma Mine," the lawsuit stated.

"The existence of all these contributing factors created a 'perfect storm' that all but guaranteed a tragic accident," the lawsuit said. "Had even one of these major violations been properly and appropriately cited by MSHA, Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield may not have died in the mine fire."

Filed three weeks after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, the lawsuit cites an MSHA review that suggested close ties between agency officials and Massey might have led to lax enforcement before the Aracoma mine fire.

While a new administration has since taken over, and former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main is now running MSHA, lawmakers and safety advocates have said the agency could have taken tougher action to end safety problems at Upper Big Branch before that April 5 disaster.

"It's time for MSHA to step up to the plate and acknowledge to its victims that which it has already acknowledged to itself," said Bruce Stanley, attorney for the Bragg and Hatfield families. "It owes these widows more than lip service. And while it appears that there have been some changes since the dangerous days of Aracoma, at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine and an entire community now lie in tatters."

Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

On Jan. 19, 2006, a fire broke out on the belt take-up storage unit for the longwall conveyor belt at the Aracoma mine in Logan County. A crew of workers, including Don Bragg and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, ran into thick, black smoke in their escape tunnel and had to find another way out. Ten men from their crew escaped. Bragg and Hatfield somehow became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

After the deaths, MSHA investigators cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including "prolonged operation" of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.

Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal violations of mine safety rules and agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine. The company also agreed to pay $1.7 million in civil penalties for MSHA violations cited after the fire, and settled a wrongful-death case filed by the Bragg and Hatfield families.

The lawsuit against MSHA alleges, "The sheer number and egregiousness of the readily apparent safety violations at the Alma Mine, which should have been identified by MSHA personnel if they had performed adequate inspections during their repeated trips to the Alma Mine preceding the fatal fire, are sufficient to lead a reasonable observer to question the true nature of the relationship between the responsible MSHA personnel and company management."

Also, the lawsuit notes that an MSHA interview review reported on "tensions" between an MSHA supervisor and the Aracoma Coal management relating to citations in early 2001. About that time, MSHA assigned new agency personnel to the mine, and the number of serious enforcement orders declined.

"Mine inspectors neglected to issue citations in some situations in which citations were justified and mine inspectors on occasion underestimated the operators' negligence and/or the gravity of the hazardous conditions when violations were cited," the MSHA internal review said.

The MSHA internal review team concluded, "that some of the identified deficiencies may have stemmed from the relationship that MSHA developed with Massey Energy Company representatives in early 2001. Using enforcement personnel in this manner to assist the Aracoma Coal Company with its compliance efforts may have created a conflict of interest that, over time, may have affected the level of scrutiny MSHA provided at Aracoma Alma No. 1 during subsequent mine inspections."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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