2 workers killed at West Virginia coal mine

WHARTON, W.Va. — Two workers died after they were trapped as the ground failed at a West Virginia coal mine with a history of safety violations, federal and state officials said Tuesday.

The ground failure occurred just about 8:45 p.m. Monday, trapping the workers, safety agency officials told The Associated Press in emails. The miners’ bodies were recovered, and safety personnel were on the site of Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, about 50 miles south of Charleston.

No additional injuries or trapped workers were reported, spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater Smithson of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training said in an email.

Preliminary indications show that a coal burst was responsible, according to state officials and mine owner Patriot Coal.

Coal bursts are violent failures of ribs, roofs or floors in underground mines, according to descriptions from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Monday’s incident involved the ground, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told The Associated Press in an email.

The bursts — a hazard in mining for decades, according to the CDC — cause coal to be ejected into the mine with enough energy to injure or kill miners.

St. Louis-based Patriot said in an emailed statement that Monday’s burst occurred during retreat mining operations — when pillars that support the roof are collapsed and removed from a completed area of work.

In October, the federal safety agency designated Brody Mine as a pattern violator, meaning it had repeatedly broken federal health and safety regulations in the previous year.

Patriot said in a statement at the time that it believed the mine didn’t qualify for the status and that it intended to contest it. The statement did not address the mine’s safety record.

During MSHA’s most recent review period from April 1, 2013, to March 31, the mine was cited for 192 safety violations, including 33 for high or reckless disregard for miners’ health and safety. The mine also received four citations this month for violations including damaged rollers or other conveyor belt components.

Since January, six accidents have occurred at the mine, including one incident in which a miner’s finger was caught in machinery and a portion had to be amputated, according to MSHA’s online records.

On March 11, gas ignited in an entry of a section of the mine as workers were extracting coal, according to MSHA. No miners were injured.

The remaining four accidents involved muscle strains and other minor incidents.

The mine produced 954,741 tons of coal in 2013, MSHA records show, and it employs about 270 workers.

Among them were the two killed Monday: Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight and Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville.

Robert Rash, chief of the Wharton-Barrett Volunteer Fire Department, said he grew up with Legg in the Wharton area. He said Legg became a coal miner after he graduated from high school.

“That’s all that’s around here, actually. Deep mine and strip mine,” said Rash, whose department was among the responders to the accident.

“I was sick to my stomach” after learning about the incident, he said.

He said Legg was always laughing and joking.

“He was a good guy. A real good guy,” Rash said.

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