State Alleges Cover-Up in Pa. Coal Mine Worker’s Death

By | January 30, 2007

Pennsylvania coal industry regulators have revoked the operating permit of a coal mine where a worker died in an explosion three months ago, alleging that a cover-up of a similar 2004 blast might have contributed to the man’s death.

The Department of Environmental Protection ordered R&D Coal Co. to seal its Buck Mountain Slope Mine in Tremont Township, Schuylkill County, after an investigation revealed similarities between the Oct. 23 blast and a 2004 accident at the same mine that injured four workers.

“The owners and operators of this mine have been unwilling or unable to operate in compliance with state regulations, and have shown a disregard for the safety and well-being of the miners and their families,” Deputy Secretary for Mineral Resources Management Jay Scott Roberts said in a statement.

R&D officials did not immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.

Dale Reightler, 43, was killed in an explosion sparked by methane gas. It was the first fatality in an underground Pennsylvania anthracite mine in more than eight years.

On Dec. 1, 2004, four workers at the same mine were injured by what company officials had claimed was flying debris and coal from an explosion caused by a pipe with a faulty gauge. R&D was allowed to reopen later that month after installing safety equipment.

However, following Reightler’s death, DEP investigators took another look at the 2004 case and concluded the accident was caused by a methane explosion, not by debris from a ruptured pipe, and that R&D officials had lied to state regulators.

“The department now believes that in December 2004, R&D officials took it upon themselves to fabricate an accident scene, intentionally provide false details and information to investigators, and failed to preserve the accident scene,” Bureau of Mine Safety investigators wrote in a revised accident report this week.

If the DEP had known the truth in 2004, the agency might have been able to help the company remedy violations and prevent the blast that killed Reightler, a married father of four who had spent more than 25 years underground, the investigators wrote.

“The cover-up of the previous accident and the similarities between the two accidents” indicate that mine owners are unable or unwilling to operate the mine safely, according to the report, released Friday.

The DEP investigation into the October blast found that R&D had violated 22 provisions of Pennsylvania mining law.

The company allowed uncertified miners to blast rock and coal, failed to adequately measure methane levels before detonating explosives, and used unconfined explosive shots that ignited the methane once the shots were fired, according to DEP.

DEP has suspended three miners involved in the October accident. It wasn’t immediately clear whether further action would be taken against company officials.

Federal mine regulators also are investigating R&D and found “significant safety hazards” at the Buck Mountain mine, according to Dirk Fillpot, spokesman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Between the fatal blast and Friday’s closure by the state, the federal agency had shut down portions of the mine six times.

Eastern Pennsylvania has the nation’s only deposits of anthracite, a type of hard, relatively clean-burning coal that once heated millions of homes but now represents a tiny sliver of a U.S. industry that is dominated by bituminous coal.

The anthracite mines that still exist are typically very small operations employing only a handful of miners.

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On the Net:

DEP: http://www.depweb.state.pa.us

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