Top Delinquent Mine Has Deadly Legacy In the eight years regulators didn't collect penalty fines from D&C Mining, it was cited 1,500 times for safety violations — including many that federal inspectors say put miners at serious risk.
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Top Delinquent Mine Has Deadly Legacy

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Top Delinquent Mine Has Deadly Legacy

Top Delinquent Mine Has Deadly Legacy

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal grand jury indicted the former CEO of Massey Energy today. He faces charges stemming from a deadly coal mine explosion in 2010 that left 29 miners dead. The indictment accuses Don Blankenship of conspiring to violate mine safety law and impede enforcement at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. It's a rare indictment of a mining company executive for a mine disaster.

NPR has been exploring mine safety this week and how some companies fail to pay fines for safety violations, even as they continue to operate dangerous mines. Today Anna Boiko-Weyrauch has the story of a mine in Kentucky that owes more in delinquent penalties than any other mine in the U.S. - more than $4 million.

ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH, BYLINE: Donnie Smith used to work underground...

DONNIE SMITH: We was approximately a mile-and-a-half deep in the mountain.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: ...At a small coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky simply called D and C.

SMITH: If you're light goes out, you can't see your hand in front of your face. You're just stuck.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: His sister, his brother-in-law and his dad worked with him.

SMITH: In the evenings when I'd come out of the mines, me and my dad would pass each other and we'd stop and talk.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: But on June 9, 2009 they didn't pass each other as usual.

SMITH: When I got outside, my dad was sitting on the buggy and he just looked at me, you know and I felt like he wanted to say something that day and I felt like I should've said something, but he just kind of sat there and looked at me and then he smiled and he pulled out and you know, never said nothing. And I remember that it bothered me so bad that I turned around and I watched him actually, you know, leave and go under the mountain on the buggy.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Smith was still thinking about it when he got home.

SMITH: We actually heard the ambulance going up the road and my brother-in-law Chad worked second shift with my dad. He stopped by the house and when Chad pulled in, the way he got out and the way he looked, I knew something was wrong.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Smith's dad had died in the mine. His name was Rome Mead. He had been underground when a supply car broke loose and crushed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today is July the 10, 2009. This is the interview session of the fatal accident investigation.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: State investigators talked with the miners who worked at the D and C mine. They recorded the interviews. Anthony Goins was underground during the accident. He ran over to help Mead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION TAPE)

ANTHONY GOINS: His eyes would kind of move but I hollered his name a hundred times it seemed like and one time I got like, a gurgle out of him. I never got a word whatsoever out of him.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Today, that single mine, the D and C mine, owes the government more money than any other mine or mining company in the United States - over $4 million. That's according to mine delinquency records provided by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. The 4 million is all for unpaid fines - penalties for violating health and safety laws. MSHA says it doesn't have the authority to close a mine for racking up unpaid penalties and it hasn't made collecting the fines a priority. Federal records show that D and C hasn't paid most of its fines since 2006. NPR analyzed a massive federal database of accidents and safety violations in mines across the country and compared them to the delinquency records. We examined hundreds of pages of state and federal mine safety records and reports and we found that as D and C's overdue fines grew, the mine continued to violate safety laws 1,500 times in eight years. According to citations written by federal inspectors, a third of those violations could have seriously hurt or killed miners. The most common hazards were ones that could lead to fires or explosions. Equipment was badly maintained, sometimes jury-rigged with tape.

MARIE MEAD: There was rocks falling down from the top.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Marie Mead is Rome Mead's daughter. She also worked at the mine.

MEAD: You was always looking above your head to make sure that nothing was going to fall on you while you were doing your job.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Inspectors wrote that up, too. They noted that the falling rocks could be as large as 30 feet long and 10 feet thick. They fell because the mine roof wasn't supported properly - another violation. To top it off, managers were fudging paperwork, according to violations reviewed by NPR and miners didn't have proper rescue gear. If there was an immediate threat to safety or health, inspectors removed miners from the site. In the past eight years, they did that 145 times but that was only temporary. The miners soon returned and the hazards came back, too and while it amassed over $4 million in delinquent fines, Labor Department data show that the D and C mine produced close to 800,000 tons of coal. That coal, based on average annual prices reported by the Energy Department, was worth about $50 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: State your full name, please.

JEFFREY LEE BRUCE: Jeffrey Lee Bruce.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: June 6, 2009 D and C miner Jeff Bruce had been towing a trailer around a corner underground when it broke loose and killed Rome Mead. The car was laden with concrete blocks. It weighed close to five tons. The thin rusty chain Bruce had used to tow it was too weak, but Bruce told investigators that was the chain they usually used.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is this common practice?

BRUCE: I'd done it a lot.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: And he said mine management never told him he should've only used the thick two bar designed for the job. State investigators determined Bruce should've used the proper equipment to tow such a heavy load. They cited him and mine management for that failure, but we wanted to know why no matter how many times inspectors wrote citations, the fines weren't deterring the mine from violating health and safety laws and why the fines weren't being paid. So NPR went to the D and C mine site in Harlan County, Kentucky. We wanted to speak to Barry Rogers, the D and C mine superintendent listed on the citations.

BARRY ROGERS: Them fines are not mine. I don't own no part of D and C. I'm just not going to talk to nobody about it.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: OK, well, I'd be curious for an explanation of why all the violations and why all the fines happened in the first place. Do you have an explanation for that?

ROGERS: Nope. I've just got no comment on none of it. I'm not even going to talk about it.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Rogers walked away. The owner of D and C Mining Corporation is Horace Garrison Hill. He goes by Gus. In a deposition last year he said he's the sole owner and officer of the company. The D and C mine is not currently active, but Hill still owns other coal businesses. For weeks we called his companies to talk with him but never heard back. So we went to southwest Virginia to find him.

Hi there, I'm looking for Mr. Gus Hill, please?

GUS HILL: That's me.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: That's you?

He was sitting in the driver's seat of a red Lincoln pickup in the back of one of his businesses. Hill is in his late 60s with straight black hair swept to the side and dark glasses. He said the mine managers control everything at D and C.

HILL: They control everything. They do everything...

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: But you're the one who owns it.

HILL: ...I get the blame when they do it.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Hill said he gets the blame for what the mine managers do and he declined to answer any other questions. Now, Hill's D and C mine owes its millions of dollars of fines to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but it's hardly made a dent in the debt so we went to the agency's headquarters. We asked the head of the agency, Joe Main, why the government hasn't collected the unpaid fines.

JOE MAIN: Where we have put our efforts, it wasn't at the fine at the end of the day.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: Instead, Main says regulators focused on whether the mine was operating safely while it was still open. Inspectors blitzed the mine 10 times with ramped-up surprise visits, more than any other mine.

MAIN: There's evidence abound to show that we aggressively had D and C under our microscope and was implementing the strategies that was aimed at protecting those miners.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: But it wasn't until 2012 that the government took aggressive action to force the mine to pay. It went to federal court and sued for unpaid penalties. By then, Gus Hill had closed the D and C mine, according to federal records. This was three years after Rome Mead lost his life and six years after the fines first became overdue. In the meantime, three other miners were injured at the mine. Last year the government got a $2 million judgment from the court. That's half the mine's unpaid fines. The company has made a series of small payments since then, but not enough to keep up with interest and penalties so the debt continues to grow. For NPR News I'm Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

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