State and federal regulators failed to find safety violations that contributed to the deaths of two miners in a conveyor belt fire at an underground coal mine in January, according to an independent report.
But J. Davitt McAteer, who was asked by Gov. Joe Manchin to conduct the investigation, said Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. was ultimately to blame for the deaths.
“It is the operator’s responsibility to comply with the laws,” McAteer, a former director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at a news conference Friday.
Don. I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 47, got separated from their crew in the smoke-filled Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County and were unable to escape the Jan. 19 fire.
McAteer wrote in a report released Friday that Massey couldn’t alert miners about the fire and the need to evacuate. The mine’s system for detecting fires and telling miners to evacuate was flawed, and water to the sprinkler system and fire hoses was shut off, he wrote.
He also noted that the state did not conduct a required annual electrical inspection for two years before the fire.
“The two victims’ lives could have been saved with early intervention and a fire suppression system that worked,” McAteer wrote.
Massey said in a statement it would not comment before reviewing the report, but it reiterated that deficiencies at the mine were not recognized by the company or regulators.
“Massey Energy remains committed to working with federal and state agencies to fully understand the causes of the accident and to prevent a similar occurrence at Massey Energy or elsewhere in the future,” the statement said.
The report recommends hiring more state inspectors and paying them better, and it urges state and federal regulators to work together more on inspections.
It also recommends redesigning mine electrical systems to isolate emergency systems and adopting a regulation requiring mine superintendents and engineers to certify quarterly that safety equipment works properly.
Manchin said his administration will use the report to strengthen mine safety rules. “This report is an important tool in that effort,” he said.
McAteer’s findings largely mirror those noted by the state in a report issued Nov. 2.
The Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training identified numerous violations at Aracoma, including missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment.
Investigators said the fire resulted from a misaligned conveyor belt that carries coal. The belt was rubbing a bearing, causing friction. Mine personnel could not fix the alignment problem before the evening shift started, but operated the belt anyway.
Miner’s Health, Safety and Training issued 169 notices of violation, including 16 against individuals. It also recommended the withdrawal or suspension of seven miners’ certificates.
Since the Aracoma fire and the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine that killed 12 miners, the state has hired a new safety director and overhauled its rules and role in mine safety. It is taking on certification and testing of equipment such as emergency air packs and communication systems.
The Aracoma fire remains the subject of a civil investigation by MSHA and a criminal probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston.
Massey is the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer by revenue and has operations in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
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