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A rock fall that killed Emery County coal miner Elam Jones in March occurred because the mine operator had an inadequate roof-control plan for the accident site and did not respond to conditions indicative of danger, according to a report released Monday.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued two citations to a subsidiary of Rhino Resources Partners the Lexington, Ky.-based company that has operated the Castle Valley #4 mine outside of Huntington since January, 2011 for safety violations that contributed directly to the fatal accident.
The more serious citation alleged the company let mining continue although the sloughage of coal from walls had made the tunnel where Jones was working wider than the 20 feet allowed.
In addition, mobile equipment to hold up the known-to-be-weak roof was too far away to prop up the 7-ton slab of rock that fell on Jones, killing him. His co-worker, Dallen McFarlane, was injured.
Jones, 29, left behind a widow and two young sons. He and McFarlane both participated in the rescue efforts at the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster, where nine died and six were hurt in two implosions of the mine's walls.
A technique known as retreat mining, or pulling pillars, was used in both mines where the deadly accidents took place. The practice involves cutting out the pillars that held up the roof as crews back up from the mine's depths toward the surface.
On March 22, Jones and McFarlane had just begun their shift in an area of the mine where problems were developing. Efforts to cut away pillars "became progressively worse over the course of a week and a half prior to the accident," MSHA's investigation report said.
The company had stopped mining in three of six tunnels in the coal seam because of "adverse roof conditions." Extra 6-foot-long roof bolts were drilled into the rock above to hold it in place, a mine foreman told investigators, because coal sloughing off walls had widened the tunnel 3 feet, increasing downward pressure by the 1,350 feet of mountain overhead.
"It should have been apparent to the mine operator that the site-specific roof control plan for partially mining in [the accident area] was not adequate for the hazardous conditions that were being encountered," the report said. "The operator was aware of worsening conditions, but elected to continue mining."
Using a remote control, Jones was making the second cut with his mining machine when McFarlane said he hear the roof pop and roof bolts break. He then was hit from behind by an edge of the falling slab, which landed directly on Jones. Miner Kenny Gressman cut McFarlane free, but Jones died at the scene.
In an email, Rhino Resource Partners' spokesman Scott Morris declined comment.
Jones' mother, Julie Jones, blamed the company for mining in an area "they knew wasn't safe." She suspects "they're hiding something."
"I could get furious. I could get stomping mad, but it would not change the fact my son is gone," Jones said, noting she and her daughter-in-law have retained attorneys for potential civil litigation.
"We were waiting until we got the [MSHA] report," she added, taking some consolation from MSHA assurances that problems identified in her son's death were rectified in other mines. "I really hope they have so no other family has to go through what we went through."
The Castle Valley #4 mine was one of 12 nationwide subjected to surprise MSHA inspections in November, the agency disclosed Thursday.
Inspectors issued the mine eight citations, but only two were classified as serious and significant. That was the third best result of the dozen mines examined in MSHA's effort to focus on "mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns."
MSHA initiated the program after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster where 29 miners died in April of 2010. Since then, agency inspectors have conducted 687 impact inspections and issued 11,427 citations, 1,052 orders and 48 safeguards.