On March 8 of this year, John Michael Garloch started his Sunday night shift at the McElroy mine in Marshall County, West Virginia like any other. Garloch, who traveled 38 miles from his home in Neffs, Ohio for every shift, was soon absorbed in the rigors of his job. But at 8:55 pm, a loud bang resounded off the walls like a cannon firing.
A large piece of rock dislodged from the mine face and hurtled toward the miners working below. The rock struck three miners, badly injuring them. Miners nearby noticed a pair of boots protruding from underneath the rock. They belonged to Garloch.
Just a week prior, federal inspectors had handed out more than a dozen safety citations at the McElroy mine. Several of those safety citations involved not providing adequate protection from collapsing roofs and mine faces. They joined a growing litany of safety violations for West Virginia mines.
The total number of safety violations in West Virginia coal mines has increased by 50 percent in the past seven years, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2007, the total number of mine safety violations was 14,958; by 2014, that number has increased to 22,490.
Adding to that is the fact that West Virginia has the highest fatality rate among miners in the nation (121 from 2004 to 2015), even though it is not the highest coal producing state. In 2013, Wyoming produced the most amount of coal, with West Virginia producing the second most amount and Kentucky coming in a close third, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Coal companies struggling to stay competitive in a market flush with cheap natural gas may be partially to blame for the state’s worsening safety record, experts say. For example, small coal companies trying to compete with larger companies may be resorting to shortcuts in safety, says Dennis O’Dell, director of the Health and Safety Department at the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
O’Dell says that some of the increase in safety violations may also be attributed to the renewed focus on safety in the wake of the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, which killed 29 miners. Back then, West Virginia state officials were not doing an adequate job of ensuring mining safety, according to Jack Spadaro, a former superintendent for the MSHA Training Academy.
“Both the state and federal governments knew Massey Energy were operating under lax mine safety standards during the Upper Big Branch disaster,” Spadaro says.
Every coal mine operation works for a profit, whether it’s in West Virginia or elsewhere. If the company can make a larger profit by not complying with the safety standards, that’s what they will do, Spadaro says.
In West Virginia, there have been 121 coal mine fatalities from 2004 to the present. In contrast, there have been 192 mining fatalities in all of the other states in the nation combined over the same time period. The state that comes closest in fatalities is Kentucky, with a total of 69 deaths.
Part of the reason West Virginia and Kentucky have so many fatalities is because many coal mines in both states are underground as opposed to above ground or surface mines, mine union officials say.
“You’re moving very massive equipment in confined spaces,” says Mike Caputo, International District Vice President of District 31 at UMWA.
Indeed, machinery was the leading cause of death in both underground and surface mines with 17 fatalities attributed to machinery accidents from 2011 to the present, according to MSHA.
Even so, Caputo says, “One fatality is one too many.”
Spadaro says that both in West Virginia and Kentucky state officials are not enforcing crucial safety standards for mining. Spadaro was particularly critical of enforcement efforts when Senator Joe Manchin was governor of West Virginia; his administration was in power during the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
“[State officials] started allowing safety precautions that were not as strong as they should be,” Spadaro says.
The lax safety standards initiated by the Manchin administration continues today, Spadaro says.
“The current administration has appointed people who have not vigorously enforced mine safety laws as they should,” he says.
As a result, safety violations continue to persist in the industry.
Federal mining and safety officials have suggested new technology and procedures to ensure that disasters like the Upper Big Branch do not occur again. Just this month, MSHA proposed a new rule to make mandatory a new piece of technology that automatically shuts off heavy equipment if it gets too close to a miner.
New filtering systems that comb the air for toxins, as well as safety chambers, which can be used in the case of an underground accident, are also being implemented in some mines.
Some miners say it’s time for West Virginia coal operations to take safety more seriously.
“If you’re going to stay in business you have to change, you know, follow the regulations,” says Doug Corbin, a third generation coal miner from West Virginia.
Of the four miners injured in the roof collapse at the McElroy mine last March, three escaped with injuries. But Garloch was not so lucky. He was pronounced dead at 9:53 p.m., less than an hour after the accident.
“We need to do everything to ensure that doesn’t happen at all,” says Caputo.
Mountaineer News Service is part of West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. They can be reached by calling 304-293-3505.