Widow Sues Kentucky Mine Operators for $65 Million

November 20, 2006

The widow of a miner killed in an underground roof collapse at a southeastern Kentucky mine is seeking more than $65 million in a lawsuit against the five Virginia companies that oversee the operation.

Claudia Cole of Cumberland filed a wrongful death lawsuit Thursday in federal court, accusing the defendants of negligence in connection with her husband’s August 2005 death at the Stillhouse Mine No. 1 near Cumberland, Ky.

The suit says Black Mountain Resources, Harlan Resources, Stillhouse Mining, Cumberland Land Corp. and Cumberland Resources Corp. failed to ensure the mine complied with federal and state safety laws and train employees on placement of roof supports.

The miners on her husband’s shift also were allowed to work in a mine area where there was a crack in the roof, according to the lawsuit.

The body of Russell L. Cole, 39, was recovered four days after the rock fall that trapped him under a rock inside the Harlan County mine. Cole was the mine foreman.

Claudia Cole and the couple’s two children are seeking $1.6 million in damages for loss of wages, $50 million in punitive damages and $15 million to compensate the children for the loss of their father. They also are seeking a jury trial.

“From Claudia’s perspective, she is seeking justice for her family. … She wouldn’t take any money if she could have her husband back,” said Tony Oppegard, one of the attorneys representing Cole’s family.

Attempts to reach officials at the companies last Thursday were unsuccessful.

Another miner, Brandon Wilder, 23, was killed in the collapse. Wilder’s body was recovered about eight hours after the collapse, but two more rock falls hindered the search and injured two people.

The deaths prompted $360,000 in federal fines against Stillhouse Mining.

They also focused attention on so-called retreat mining, a practice that has been blamed for the deaths of at least 17 coal miners in the past seven years. The process requires the removal of coal pillars, which hold up the roof.

In underground coal mining, crews first do what’s called advance mining, digging into the mountain to remove coal. Coal pillars 25to 100 feet across are left in place, resulting in a network of tunnels.

When companies have advanced as far as possible, they begin retreat mining, so named because the miners are working toward the outside of the mine. The process usually allows the companies to remove 20 percent or more of the remaining coal.

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