Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 6, 1972 · Page 31
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 31

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 6, 1972
Page 31
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Page 31 article text (OCR)

Report From Blacksville No. 1 Again By Thomas N.Bethell « B ^ CK I VIL P' w Va - Sundfl y' - u -y 23,1972-Fire burns 650 feet below and on the surface under the broiling sun you can see the thick dark smoke rushing upward through the exhaust fan. A few yards away, one of the 14 rescue crews at the scene goes slowly down into the mine aboard an elevator, making last-minute adjustments to back-pack breathing gear and helmet lights. The crew that has just come out is quiet and grim. The men are realists. They don t believe that the nine miners trapped underground could possibly be alive. The fire is out of control and the mine atmosphere is lethal with carbon monoxide. The miners underground were equipped with W65 self rescuers-breathing aids capable of sustaining them for an hour, in carbon monoxide concentrations .of 2 per cent. The percentage is much higher than that, according to the, rescue crewmen; and the fire has been burning for 18 hours In the parking lot the weary'rescue crewmen stand in the heat and dust, spitting on the ground, trying to clear their lungs. They aren't saying much; there isn't much to say; it has all been said before. This, isn't just another mine disaster, it's a Consol disaster, and it's not unexpected--at least so these men say. These particular rescue crewmen don't work for Consolidation Coal Co., but they know Consol by reputation. Everybody does in Northern West Virginia: Consol is king around here and has never been reluctant to let people know it. Consol mines, Consol towns, Consol stores, Consol candidates. And when you mine coal for Consol you feel the pressure all the time. "They want that coal coming out of there," says Ron Statler, who works at the Blacksville No. 1 mine, "and they don't want you slowing things down. Not for any reason." violations of the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, and in 104 cases of "imminent danger" had ordered men out of the mines. After each of the dozen fatal accidents thus far this year, teams of inspectors conducted investigations, and their conclusions followed a pattern that hasn't changed much in the past decade: they blamed management for 11 out of the 12 fatalities. A senior bureau official, asking not to be identified, says that Consol's corporate attitude has not improved perceptibly since Farmington. 'They are," he says, "the same arrogant bastards as always, and they would rather spend their money wheeling and dealing in Washington than cleaning up their mines." You hear the same complaint, in different words, at Blacksville. Ron Statler, who operates a continuous-mining machine at Blacksville No. 1 arid serves as president of Local 1588 at the mine, is talking with Harry Patrick, reform candidate for United Mine Workers international secretary-treasurer. Patrick is explaining some of the safety precautions used where he works--at Bethlehem Steel's Barrackville mine-a few miles away. Barrackville, as both men know, has a reputation as one of the safest mines in the state, partly because Patrick and the other miners there are tough about walking out over safety violations. Statler is near despair. He runs a tough local, but with Consol, he says, nothing seems to work. "I swear," he says to .Patrick, "I swear everything Bethlehem does, these sons-of-bitches do just the opposite." Charlelji August 6,1972 1C BLACKSVILLE NO. a new mine, planned as something of a ·'"·'·' showcase of Modern technology. Development began in 1968, and the first full train left the mine in March 1969, headed for East Coast power plants. That first summer of production, the mine employed 150 men. Development of a twin mine, Blacksville No. 2, was launched, and Consol officials projected full development of both mines by early 1973. At that time, the mines would employ about . 500 men apiece, producing 3,000,000 tons a year apiece, ranking them among the 15 or 20 biggest mines in the U.S. But plans fell behind schedule. By this summer Blacksville No. 1 was only about a third of the way toward full production. The work force, however, was up to 330, or more than three-fifths of the total force projected for 1973. The result: low productivity.--a. relatively large work force producing relatively little coal. There were -various- reasons. Blacksville No. 1 is primarily a long- wall mine. Longwall mining, although used extensively in Europe, is new to the U.S., and Consol's miners and engineers were unfamiliar with it. And, to a great extent, the work force was composed of very young, ·very inexperienced miners. At considerable trouble Consol could have shifted a few veterans from other mines to Blacksville to provide leadership. But the company hadn't made the habit of doing that in- the . past and didn't do it at Blacksville. So the great majority of men working at this new, difficult mine were green. The miners at Blacksville went underground mostly with, no intention of spending the rest of their lives digging coal. They hoped to make a small pile of money and find a better job before their luck runs out and the law of averages catches up with them .and they get badly hurt; or killed. The mine fire started at about 8 p.m. July 22. It was a Saturday, a weekend shift with no coal being mined at the time, according to the company. There were 40 men in the mine. Several of them were moving a continuous-miner from one section to another. Somehow the machine made contact with a live overhead trolley wire. Sparks flew wildly in the dark passageway. Coal dust hydraulic fluid, and accumulated grease on the machine began burning: One of the men reportedly tried to disconnect the power at a nearby circuit- breaker, but the breaker didn't work. Some minutes later, men working elsewheresaw the smoke rolling past them as it was sucked through the mine's ventilation system. They phoned in to the mine dispatcher. The stories conflict at this point. In some versions, the men were told not to worry, that everything was under control. In other versions,.they were told to stay where they were and await further instructions. There weren't further instructions. The communications system went dead and nobody heard from the-missing miners again. caught fire July 22. The air around them fouled quickly. They weren't ' near the machine--they may not have known, in fact, that it was being moved--but it blocked the passageway and they had no escape. Thirty- one men outby the machine--upwind of it, in other words--managed to get out of the mine. David Smith, the chief of a rescue crew from a nearby Eastern Gas and Fuel Co. mine, was irate about the disaster when he talked to Harry Patrick and UMW presidential candidate Arnold Miller on Sunday afternoon. He, too, knows the state law by heart. He and his buddies explained how they've fought Eastern over the same issue, and how they've tried to get help from United Mine Workers headquarters in Washing' ton. There's been no response. On Sunday afternoon, UMW District 31 President Leonard Pnakovich (later named vice president of the UMW) showed'up at Blacksville to confer with mine officials. The Eastern rescue crewmen ignored Pnakovich--an appointee of UMW President Tony Boyle--and went out of their way to talk with Miller and Patrick. "We want you to win", Smith told Miller: He waved his arm toward the dirty brown smoke pouring out of the exhaust fan. "There's not a damn thing going to be done about situations like this until we get somebody in there who's not afraid to tell these damn companies where to get off." There were rumors that Boyle might be coming to the mine by helicopter. The miners talking with Miller and Patrick didn't think it was likely. Local 1588 is solidly against Boyle, Statler said. "We haven't forgotten Farmington." It was while 78 men were still trapped underground at Consol's No. 9 mine that Boyle arrived and told reporters that Consol was "safety-minded" and "cooperative." "Like to see him come flying in here and say that today," Statler said. "He wouldn't get out alive." But no helicopter appeared bearing Boyle, and from his office in Washington there was silence. Halfway up the access road to the mine is a cluster of state police cars. One trooper says they're there at the instructions of Gov. Moore, another that it's at the request of Consolidation Coal. Either explanation is possible. Moore had his troopers block the press out of Buffalo Creek after the disastrous February flood, and Consol has long since learned from the Farmington disaster that it can be bad for public relations to let reporters get too close to a mine. Now the company has a disaster plan for its public relations men to follow during awkward moments. The watchward: Keep the press out. At Blacksville the plan is being followed. By pure luck, two reporters elude the blockade. We poke around briefly in the sweltering heat of the mine office, where the rescue operations are being directed. There is a constant coming and going of sweaty, weary men. Federal officials are asking for more information on the mine's ventilation system. There's no sign that anyone is holding out much hope. And it's obvious why the press is excluded: we would get under foot, of course, but beyond that there would be image problems. When you can't actually watch a rescue operation, your mind's eye forms the impression of something functioning like a drill team, with military precision. It's not like that. The scene seems surprisingly disorganized. Near a Coke cooler, two state troopers, fatbellied and perspiring, are telling each other jokes. Rescue crewmen are slumped exhausted around a table. "They were told to stay where they were and await further instructions. 9 * for a. few moments. He continues on his way; they continue on their, more slowly, bareheaded in the broiling sun, two of them staring ahead at nothing, another looking down at the ground, hardly moving. She is very pale; not quite crying. It is all sweat and grime except for John Corcoran, the president of Consol, who has ·somehow escaped the heat and the dust. His lightly-striped shirt is unsoiled, the French cuffs aren't even rolled up, the dark pin-stripe pants still hold their press; there is a fine shine on his shoes. He walks out of the building, accompanied by an aide, and heads across a parking lot. Coming in the other direction are half a dozen women--wives of the men trapped in the mine, soon to be widows. They are keeping a vigil in another mine building--a place where, thanks to the blockade down the road, the press cannot talk to them. The women cross the lot and stand in the dust talking to John Corcoran It was more than two hours after the fire broke out before anybody notified the Bureau of Mines. By that time people in the town of Blacksville were already hearing rumors that something had happened at the mine, and a few miles away in Morgantown an editor was asking one of his reporters to check around. The reporter recalls that no company official would tell him anything. The confusion continued into the night, growing worse as West Virginia officialdom got into the act. Dispatched by Gov. Arch Moore, press officer Norman Yost told reporters that the fire was under control. Everyone was safe, so Yost said. After the Buffalo Creek flood in February it was Yost who told reporters that some 30 to 35 people who had been presumed dead had miraculously found shelter in a cave huddled there until rescuers found them. It was a nice story that turned out to be completely without foundation. At Blacksville, Yost's report on the mine fire turned out exactly the same way. The law of averages catches up with Consol miners all too often. It caught 78 of them at Farmington in 1968 in a single massive blast. In all, 97 Consol miners died on the job that year. In 1969, with no major disaster, 21 Consol miners died. The figure was 17 the next year, dropping to nine in 1971, the best year Consol had had since 1962. But this year the trend reversed sharply, and by June 30, 12 Consol miners were dead. Federal mine inspectors in West Virginia were filing reports with Bureau of Mines headquarters in' Washington, showing with startling clarity the seriousness of Consol's safety problem. Before the year was half over they had found thousands of About the Author Itwmcn H fatMl h *· editor of Cod fa- M, A Wnhington-baMd Mwsfemr from ^WMCPI nnt OfffCW n (KNIpTOtL The West Virginia state mining law, revised in 1971, is explicit on the subject of how to move machinery. Section 22-2-6 spells it out: "... When equipment is being transported or trammed, no person shall be permitted to be inby the equipment in the ventilating split that is passing over the equipment." That kind of language wouldn't mean much to a layman, but Ron Statler and many of the other men in Local 1588 know the law by heart, practically word for word. In a coal mine, air is sucked through the otherwise draftless corridors by powerful fans. To be "inby" a machine means, basically, to be downwind of it. If the machine catches fire, anyone inby it will be caught by the smoke, the fumes, and--most tetnaUy--the carbon monoxide that a, fire generates. There were nine men mby the mining machine when it Later we drive slowly away from the mine in Ron Statler's car, past a gumchewing trooper who leans down to stare into the car suspiciously. Arnold Miller and Harry Patrick are fuming. They have been briefed by Bureau of Mines officials and have talked at length with men from the rescue crews and they know that the missing miners will not be brought out alive unless there is a Grade-A miracle, and they are both veteran miners who don't like to rely too heavily on miracles. They know the fire could have been avoided. The. overhead trolley wire should have been de-energized before the mining machine was towed under it. And circuit-breakers should have tripped out automatically when the machine and the wire touched each other: But the breakers didn't trip, and Miller and Patrick think they know why: because somebody had wired around them. It's all too common in the mines, they say--the current's always getting overloaded, and if you wire around a circuit- breaker you don't lose precious minutes resetting them two or three times on each shift. What bothers Miller and Patrick is not so much that such things happen: it's that the UMW's bosses in Washington won't do anything about it. Nobody wants to be called strike- happy, but Miller and Patrick both say that if they were running the UMW there would be a day of mourning all across the coalfields--a mass walking-out,. 100,000 men staying home, the coal lying underground untouched. "If they want it, they can come dig it themselves"-that's the kind of gauntlet John L. Lewis used to fling at the feet of the coal operators. A reporter in the back seat thinks of John Corcoran trudging underground in his pin-stripe suit, with a pick and a shovel, and wishes he would live to see the day. "Two of them Mating ahead at nothing...' The coal seams of Northern West Virginia are full of a silent, odorless peril called methane, a gas formed--like coal--by the decomposition of organic matter. For millions of years it never posed a threat to anyone because it is harmless unless mixed with air, and there was no air in the coal seams until men began digging mines. During the past century, however, methane explosions have accounted for a high percentage of the more than 100,000 miners who have been killed in mine accidents. In 1969, with the passing of the new federal law, it became mandatory for Bureau of Mines inspectors to spot-check, at least once every five working days, all mines in . which more than a million cubic feet of .methane is liberated every day. Blacksville is one such mine, one of the gassiest of all, in fact, and so it has seen its share of inspections. Checking electrical equipment, ventilation, coal dust control, cable splices, r o u t i n e maintenance and everything else that might contribute to an explosion (with certain concentrations of methane, all it takes is the smallest spark), federal inspectors have cited the mine for violations no less than 485 times. They had made 129 visits to the mine prior to the day of the fire. On 19 occasions they had ordered men out of the mine after .discovering conditions serious enough to create imminent danger. Inspectors were in the mine as recently as July 20, two days before the fire broke out. They ran a spot check in one working section and wrote up a violation notice for "excessive accumulations of loose coarse coal, oil, and grease on and around the controls and traction motor of the continuous-mining machine." "I think it's fair to say that's a common problem at Consol mines," an inspector commented later. "I think it's an indication that they just don't pay enough attention to your basic maintenance. It's taking a risk to let that stuff build up.!, .it's dangerous, it can flash up fast and burn like holy hell and you won't be able to get near it for the heat. So we cite them for it, but they go right on doing it" Blacksville No. 1 had been cited for accumulations of flammable material 24 times--an indication that mine management did indeed tend to ignore the citations. Maybe there was too much of a sense of security: for all the safety violations, the mine had a good record in lost-time injuries, at least by industry standards. There had been only one fatal accident since 1969 and the mine's accident-frequency rate hi 1971, -5.8 per million man-hours, was far superior to the industry average of 41.6. Some of the men of Local 1588 say that's because they wouldn't let themselves get pushed into taking unnecessary risks. But in any event risks were there, and inspectors kept finding than. On July 20, for example, the mine was cited not only for accumulations of dust and oil but for other hazards as well: a methane detector was not functioning, and a circuit-breaker on a continuous-miner wouldn't cut off the power when it was placed in the "off" position--indicating, most probably, that it had been tampered with. Without having seen the inspectiqn report, Arnold Miller and Harry Patrick would later conclude, on their own, that the same thing had contributed to the fatal fire. Only weeks from now, after the post- disaster investigation has been completed,will anyone be able to say with certainty whether that conclusion is correct. Meanwhile, however, a search through the federal records turns up a staggering pile of e n d l e s s l y repeated violations--seemingly an invitation to disaster. In April, for example, checking the sections where the disaster was later to occur, inspectors docked Consol for improperly grounded electrical equipment, inadequate ventilation, and excessive dust. These violations show up often in other reports, and there are more: locomotives operating without brakes, an emergency escapeway blocked up with debris, a fire extinguisher missing from a personnel carrier, dust building up along conveyor belts, a shuttle-car power cable making contact with a high-voltage line. In January the dust problem was so severe in one section that an inspector ordered everyone out after discovering it "piled more than 12-inches deep." The list of violations goes on and on; the file at the Bureau of Mines is as thick as half a dozen Sunday papers. Howard Hardesty in just plain bored with this kind of thing. Critics of this coal industry, he says, "are for the most part a negative lot. They reject, and they rebuke, and they reproach, and they frequently view with alarm, but hardly ever do they come up with anything constructive." He has a special word for such people. "If you accept .'entrepreneur' as the generic term for 'businessman,' " he says, "perhaps we can refer to these single-minded, persistent, totally myopic critics of businessmen as 'antiprcneiirs.' "Antipre- neurs. Hordes ty believes, "are changing some basic attitudes in this Please turn to Page 5C

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