These inspections, which began in force last April following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, involve mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns.

On December 3, 2010, an inspection party arrived during the morning shift at Wilcoal Mining Inc.’s Tri-State One mine in Claiborne County, Tenn. Inspectors captured and monitored the phones after production had started to prevent advance notification of their arrival. Inspectors issued 17 104(a) citations and four 104(d)(2) orders, including 104(d)(2) orders for accumulations of combustible coal dust of up to 24 inches in depth covering extensive areas where miners work and travel. Such accumulations pose a fire or explosion hazard. MSHA also issued Wilcoal a 104(d)(2) order for not properly maintaining a lifeline in the mine’s secondary escapeway. Coal and rock dust on the lifeline and reflective markers could not be readily seen by miners to effectively escape to the surface.

During the mine’s next regular safety and health inspection January 19, 2011, MSHA found more violations, including accumulations of combustible materials, failure to maintain proper clearance on a beltline and inadequately supported ribs—violations that required equipment to be shut down and coal production to cease.

Tri-State One mine was one of 13 operations to receive a letter last November putting the operation on notice of a potential pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards under Section 104(e) of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The operation repeatedly has been targeted for an impact inspection over the last eight months.

On December 7, 2010, during a regular inspection, Left Fork Mining Co. Inc.’s Straight Creek No. 1 mine of Bell County, Ky., was issued three 104(d)(2) orders for an inadequate pre-shift examination of the mechanized mining unit, an inadequate on-shift examination of the conveyer belt and accumulation of combustible materials. These orders effectively closed one entire section of the mine. One day later, MSHA issued a 104(b) order for allowing water to accumulate in a bleeder air course, a potential disruption to the mine’s ventilation system. The mine is currently shut down under MSHA’s order until the operator completes the pumping of water from the bleeder entry. Due to the mine closure, Straight Creek did not receive an impact inspection last month. The mine, which has been the subject of a number of impact inspections, received a letter last November putting it on notice of a potential pattern of violations.

“In spite of our relentless attempts to make mine operators accountable for their workers’ safety and health, some continue to flout their responsibilities,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “While we are seeing improvements at a number of operations, the persistently bad behavior at others underscores the need for tougher legislation and stronger enforcement tools. As the condition of the Wilcoal mine demonstrates, some operators know MSHA cannot be at a mine all the time.”

Since April 2010, MSHA has conducted 198 impact inspections. These inspections have resulted in 3,758 citations, 363 orders and 13 safeguards.