The West Virginia mine where two workers were fatally injured on Monday consistently violated federal mine safety laws, but federal regulators say they were unable to shut it down completely.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration confirmed that two workers were killed on May 12 when coal and rocks burst from mine walls at Patriot Coal's Brody No. 1 mine in Boone County, W.Va.
MSHA says one victim was operating a mining machine and the other was drilling bolts into the roof of the mine, a process that prevents rockfalls. But MSHA and Patriot both say the miners were engaged in "retreat mining" at the time, a dangerous practice that involves cutting the coal pillars that hold up the mine roof, yielding the last loads of coal after a coal seam has been fully mined.
Federal data reviewed and analyzed by NPR show serious safety problems at the mine going back to 2007. The threat to miners was so serious and persistent that MSHA responded with one of its toughest enforcement actions. In October of last year, the Brody mine was designated a "pattern violator" and received extra regulatory scrutiny.
Patriot objected, blaming the troubled safety record and pattern of violations on a previous owner.
NPR's review of data from MSHA reveals serious safety issues under Patriot management that put miners at risk of injury or death.
From 2013 on, MSHA cited Patriot's Brody No. 1 mine:
- 40 times for highly negligent violations of 18 mining standards, which inspectors determined could lead to the deaths of coal miners.
- 39 times for allowing combustible materials, such as coal mine dust, to accumulate, which can fuel explosions.
- 22 times for failing to properly inspect the mine before workers began shifts. These "pre-shift examinations" are designed to spot and correct safety hazards before miners are put at risk.
- 20 times for failing to properly ventilate the mine for methane gas and coal mine dust, which can ignite and explode. These violations were deemed "significant and substantial," which MSHA defines as violations that are reasonably likely to result in serious injury or illness.
- 20 times for significant and substantial violations for failing to control the roof of the mine to prevent rocks from falling during mining.
- 532 times for violations overall. Of those, 253 violations were characterized as significant and substantial. High negligence was cited for 68 violations. And 80 were for circumstances that violated MSHA's "Rules to Live by," which identify factors that have been common in mine disasters, explosions and fatalities.
And in 2013, the injury rate at the mine was three times the national average.
Despite the threat to miners, federal regulators say they do not have the authority to simply close the mine.
MSHA failed to use an even tougher tool at the Brody mine. The agency has the authority to seek a federal court injunction that would place a mine under the supervision of a federal judge. The judge could then order the closure of the mine if its owner failed to fix chronic safety problems.
But in the 40 years it has had this authority, MSHA has used it only once — in 2010 against Massey Energy's Freedom Mine No. 1 in Kentucky. Massey then closed the mine.
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's chief of coal mine safety, told NPR, "Court injunctions take forever in some cases." Instead, the agency decided to deem the mine a pattern violator, he said.
"We are going to be conducting a full and thorough investigation to get to the bottom of what happened at Brody," the assistant secretary for mine safety and health, Joe Main, said. "If we need to take increased actions there, we're going to do it."
A Patriot Coal spokeswoman, Investor Relations Vice President Janine Orf, did not respond directly to NPR's request for comment on the mine's 2013 safety record. Instead, Orf referred to Patriot's earlier statements contesting its "pattern of violations" designation.
The Brody No. 1 mine is among Patriot Coal's 60 active coal mines, which employ about 3,500 people in West Virginia and Kentucky.