By JULIA ROBERTS GOAD
Although it has been specifically prohibited since 1977, coal mine employees are still often given warning before federal officials inspect mines.
According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), there have been several recent instances in which MSHA has been able to detect the occurrence of advance notice.
MSHA said agency inspectors responded to a hazard complaint call about conditions at Gateway Eagle Coal Co. LLC’s Sugar Maple Mine in Boone County on March 22. A truck driver with J&N Trucking reportedly alerted mine personnel by citizens band radio of the inspectors’ arrival.
That inspection resulted in 14 violations for advance notification, accumulations of combustible material, and inadequate preshift and on-shift examinations, as well as a failure to comply with the current ventilation plan, maintain the lifeline, maintain permissibility of mobile equipment and maintain fire fighting equipment.
MSHA said on Feb. 13, the dispatcher for Metinvest B V’s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, notified the belt foreman over the mine telephone that federal and state inspectors were headed underground. The mine operator was issued a citation and, to abate it, MSHA required that all certified foremen and dispatchers be trained in the requirements of the Mine Act regarding advance notification, and that a notice be conspicuously posted in the mine office to ensure future compliance with the Mine Act.
Advance notification of inspections is one of the violations discovered in the investigation into the explosion at Upper Big Branch, where 29 miners died in an explosion.
UBB superintendent Gary May recently entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, admitting to conspiracy to give advance notification of mine inspections, falsify examination of record books and alter the mine’s ventilation system before federal inspectors were able to inspect underground.
May testified that, through these unlawful practices, the mine operator was able to avoid detection of violations by federal and state inspectors.
He told the judge that MSHA inspectors would show up on the property and he would alert employees in the mine by telephone that they were about to come underground.
Berger also asked May if he acted with anyone else.
“All the station foremen, they would call up periodically, to ask if there were any inspectors,” May replied.
“Despite the attention to the issue that has resulted from the Upper Big Branch investigation and recent testimony from Gary May, advance notice continues to occur too often in the coalfields,” said Joseph A .Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. “Upper Big Branch is a tragic reminder that operators and miners alike need to understand advance notice can prevent inspectors from finding hazards that can claim miners’ lives.”
Last week, though, a team led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a report concluding that timely enforcement of existing regulations “would have lessened the chances of - and possibly could have prevented” the explosion.
“Providing advance notice of an inspection is illegal,” said Main. “It can obscure actual mining conditions by giving mine employees the opportunity to alter working conditions, thereby inhibiting the effectiveness of MSHA inspections.”