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Alpha cited in November 2012 mine death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources created an "imminent danger" to miners when it used mobile equipment that had been modified in a way that limited the visibility of underground miners, state inspectors have alleged.

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training issued an imminent danger order to Alpha subsidiary White Buck Coal Co. as part of its investigation of a November 2012 death of a miner in Greenbrier County.

Steve O'Dell, a 27-year-old electrician from Mount Nebo, was killed Nov. 30, 2012, when he was pinned between a continuous mining machine and a "scoop" vehicle used to carry maintenance supplies at White Buck's Pocahontas Mine near Rupert.

Investigators determined that O'Dell was positioned beside the cutting head of the continuous mining machine, performing maintenance on the machine, when the maintenance scoop pinned him against the mining machine.

In a report released last week, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said that one "root cause" of O'Dell's death was a modification of the maintenance scoop. The installation of storage boxes and a welder on the scoop's frame "limited the sight distance of the scoop operator," MSHA said.

MSHA investigators determined that the scoop that was involved in the accident had been "altered significantly" when it was previously used at Massey Energy's Jerry Fork Eagle Mine. In June 2011, Alpha bought Massey Energy.

Federal officials did not cite Alpha or White Buck for the scoop modification. Instead, MSHA issued what it calls a "safeguard order." Such an order carries no monetary penalty, but requires Alpha to ensure that other equipment at the mine is not modified in a way that similarly inhibits operator visibility.

Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for MSHA, said there is no federal regulation that specifically prohibits the types of modifications made to the scoop that was involved in O'Dell's death.

"Now that this safeguard is issued, if this condition is found again by an MSHA inspector, a citation will be issued and a fine assessed," Louviere said.

State mine safety inspectors, though, did cite Alpha for the scoop modifications. A state rule that dates back to 1985 prohibits any equipment modifications that limit visibility "to a degree which poses a hazard to persons in the vicinity of such equipment."

"This is a violation of a health or safety rule, is of a serious nature, and involves a fatality," the state's report on O'Dell's death concluded.

Under state law, Alpha could have been fined up to $10,000 for the violation.

Eugene White, director of the state mine safety office, said his agency assessed a proposed fine of $6,000. Alpha has not decided whether it will appeal, a company spokesman said.

In its investigation report, the state mine safety office noted that it found a second scoop vehicle that had been modified, with a welder and tool boxes mounted to the top of the scoop. State inspectors issued an "imminent danger" order, saying the modification "poses a hazard to persons in the vicinity of the scoop."

MSHA noted in its report that O'Dell was the second miner killed at the Pocahontas Mine in an accident involving being hit with mobile underground equipment.

The previous death occurred in July 2010, when Massey Energy owned the operation. Wilbert Starcher, a 60-year-old electrician, was killed when he was run over by a shuttle car. Federal investigators concluded that death occurred because the shuttle car "had an improper sideboard installed between the operator's deck and the bed of the shuttle car."

The sideboard was intended to prevent coal from spilling into the operator's deck, but it "severely limited the field of vision of the shuttle car operator," MSHA said in its report.

During the investigation of O'Dell's death, MSHA said that its inspectors observed Alpha mine management wearing battery-powered strobe lights that would help workers see each other underground.

"Mine management was questioned concerning the use of this type of personal protective equipment," the MSHA report said. "The majority of mine management felt it was important to wear strobe lights to increase visibility of miners, but did not require that all miners wear the strobes."

MSHA issued a "safeguard order" to require the use of strobe lights at the mine.

"The recommendations that MSHA made following the accident have all be implemented," said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. "We've remained in touch with Steven O'Dell's wife and family since this tragic accident and we continue to extend our sympathies."

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


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