Answers Sought in Deadly Kentucky Mine Explosion

Investigators have entered a coal mine in Holmes Mill, Ky., seeking clues to what caused a weekend explosion that left five miners dead. More than 30 miners have died in accidents in the United States since the beginning of the year, already the largest annual death toll in five years.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Federal investigators finally entered the Darby Coal Mine in Holmes Mill, Kentucky, for the first time today. An explosion there killed five miners shortly after midnight last Saturday. That means 31 miners have died in mine accidents since New Year's according to federal records. Including the explosion at Sego and the fire at Arak Aricoma(ph), that's already the biggest annual death toll in five years.

As NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, evidence suggests that the same safety issues keep causing tragedies.

DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:

The investigations at all these mines are still going on. And they say it could be weeks or months before they know what caused the accidents. But some safety specialist say so far, it doesn't look like anything new or exotic caused the accidents.

Mr. JOE MAIM(ph) (Mine Safety Consultant): When you look at all these tragedies, one thing is clear. They're all avoidable.

ZWERDLING: Joe Maim consults on mine safety issues to the federal government and the International Labor Organization. He says the evidence at Sego and Aricoma and now Darby all suggest there was old fashioned neglect.

Mr. MAIM: The mine law was actually designed to prevent those kind of deaths and accidents and there's been just a total failure in the mining industry, three times over at least this year.

ZWERDLING: For instance, coal mines can explode and catch on fire when there's too much coal dust floating and sitting around. Coal dust can act like gunpowder. Even sparks can help set it off. It's been causing mine disasters for hundreds of years.

Just before the accidents at Sego and Aricoma, federal inspectors cited both mines for allowing too much coal dust and it turns out now that federal inspectors have cited the Darby mine at least 12 times since early last year for too much coal dust. Inspectors wrote up three of those violations in just the past couple of weeks. You can read all about it on the on website at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA.

Tony Apiguard(ph) was a lawyer at MSHA during the Clinton Administration. He says here's the problem. On the face of it, Darby's safety record looks good compared to some mines. MSHA files show they've received 253 federal violations in the past five years.

Mr. TONY APIGUARD (Mine Safety and Health Administration): I think coal mining is probably the only industry in the United States where you can look and say you've received hundreds of violations, safety violations, yet you have a decent safety record. But the bottom line at least in Kentucky Darby is when a mine explodes, I mean that's, that's evidence in it of itself that you have a serious safety problem.

ZWERDLING: Everybody agrees that mines are a lot safer today in general than they were even a few decades ago. Miners get better training. They have better safety equipment and fewer miners die on the job. But over the past few months, old safety issues have been popping up again, and causing a new round of concern. For instance, when miners finish digging the coal out of one section, the operators are suppose to build a special wall that seals up the old section. This is crucial. If they don't build the right kind of seals, the gasses in the old section can explode.

Well, back in 1992, the industry pressured federal regulators to rewrite the rules that spell out how these walls are built. Mine safety specialists protested. Federal investigators say that the walls at Darby and Sego were not strong enough to contain the explosions. MSHA announced this afternoon that they've named a team to investigate the Darby explosion. They said they'll fully examine all the evidence to find the causes and any safety violations.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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