Patriot Coal committed serious violations by failing to ensure walls and roofs were properly supported before a severe accident called a coal burst killed two West Virginia miners in May, according to state mining officials.
Just three days before the deadly accident, there was a similar collapse at the Brody Mine No. 1, according to a state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training investigation report.
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No one was seriously hurt in the earlier incident, which went unreported, and underground mining continued the next day, the state report says. A coal burst involves the violent failure of a roof, pillar or wall of coal inside a mine. High-speed coal is shot at anyone in the way.
On May 12, miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed by a coal burst at the Boone County mine. It filled up their section of the mine with coal four and a half feet deep, leaving just a small opening between the coal and the roof, the report states.
The burst that occurred three days earlier covered a worker in coal up to his waist, but didn't injure him. Afterward, an assistant mine foreman found cracks in the roof, deterioration of the mine's ribs and a change in the bolting pattern.
After spotting those issues, the assistant foreman told the section foreman, "I would not mine this," the report states.
Miners moved some equipment and resumed mining the next day.
On the evening of the fatal accident, the general foreman and mine manager expressed safety concerns after the earlier outburst. According to a shuttle car operator, crew members laughed about suggestions to protect the mine operator, the report states.
Legg, 48, of Twilight, and Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, were performing a risky method known as retreat mining. It involves intentionally collapsing the roof to retrieve more coal.
Retreat mining is considered standard practice in mines where coal reserves are running out.
Federal officials said the mine had so many safety problems it was deemed a "pattern violator," a rare designation reserved for the industry's worst offenders.
Brody No. 1 was one of only three mines last year to earn the label. Regulators have emphasized identifying pattern violators since the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 miners about 10 miles away.
The Charleston Gazette first reported on the enforcement.
A Patriot Coal spokeswoman did not immediately return an email for comment.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is still writing its report on the incident, said administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere.