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State to reopen Alpha mine death probe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials are going to reopen their investigation of  the May 2012 death of a longtime coal preparation plant mechanic to look into conflicting accounts of the incident presented in reports by state and federal investigators.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said his agency would contact federal investigators and perhaps seek to reinterview witnesses in a fatal accident at an Alpha Natural Resources coal preparation plant.

"We're going to do that," White said after a discussion of the matter during a meeting of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

At issue are the findings of conflicting state and federal reports on the May 17, 2012, death of 57-year-old Clyde Dolin of Danville. Dolin, who had 37 years of mining experience, was killed when he fell near an elevator at Alpha subsidiary Independence Coal's Liberty Processing Plant near Uneeda along Robinson Creek.

At the time of the accident, Dolin was preparing to use a torch to cut and remove a 12-inch steel beam that was located above the third floor of the preparation plant. The beam was being moved to prevent it from interfering with the movement of material and supplies being hoisted into the facility.

In a December report, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said that the accident occurred "because of management's failure to ensure equipment was used and maintained in safe working order." Dolin was using an extension portion of a ladder without the ladder base, contrary to the manufacturer's recommendations, MSHA said.

MSHA investigators said they found that improper ladder use had become a common practice at the facility, and that an Alpha foreman, James Maynard, was present at the work area immediately prior to the accident and helped steady the ladder while Dolin climbed to perform the work.

"Maynard allowed the ladders to be used despite their condition and despite the presence of conspicuous warning labels attached to the ladder extensions," the MSHA report said. "Maynard engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence."

MSHA cited the company for improper use of the ladder, failing to provide a safe means of access to the beam Dolin was to cut, and not requiring Dolin to wear a safety belt and line while working in the elevated location.

Federal officials have not yet assessed fines for the citations, and Alpha has not said if it plans to appeal the cited violations.

"The Liberty plant provided fall protection equipment and training to its employees before the accident occurred, and has since added more equipment such as locating fall protection harnesses on each level of the plant," said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. "Proper equipment and instruction reduces the risk that a similar fall will occur in the future."

MSHA does not license or regulate mine foremen, and can issue citations to individual workers only for violations of the ban on smoking and smoking materials in underground mines.

The state mine safety office, which regulates mine foremen in West Virginia, did not issue any personal citations to Maynard following its investigation of Dolin's death, office spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater has said. The state report was issued in August 2012, four months ahead of the MSHA report.

"There's a huge different between the federal and the state reports," said Joel Watts, the mine safety board administrator. "The foreman is not mentioned in the state report."

When asked about the conflicting reports during a public meeting Thursday, White said that state inspectors did not find any evidence that Maynard had done what MSHA alleged.

"We have no record of him holding the ladder," White said. "We knew he was around the area, but the information that our investigation team collected did not indicate he held the ladder. He might have walked by. We would have addressed that issue if we were aware of it."

White said that MSHA might have discovered evidence the state was not aware of, perhaps during what federal officials call a "special investigation," a probe that would have excluded state investigators.

"When MSHA issued this [report], that was the first time we became aware of this," White said.

White said his office re-examined audiotapes of witness interviews, but had not asked MSHA where it got its information about the foreman. White said state officials would now contact MSHA and perhaps reinterview witnesses in the case.

Independence, the Alpha unit that operates the Liberty plant, was among the sites that Alpha inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011. Alpha officials have promoted their company safety program, "Running Right," as the solution to improving health-and-safety performance, especially at the former Massey operations.

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


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