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MSHA News Release No. 95-002
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452

January 4, 1995

MULTIPLE SAFETY PROBLEMS LED TO KENTUCKY MINE BLAST, MSHA FINDS

The Mine Safety and Health Administration today issued its final report on the fatal mine explosion that occurred Nov. 30, 1993, at A.A. & W. Coals, Inc.'s, Elmo No. 5 Mine near Feds Creek, Ky. Multiple violations of basic safety requirements set the stage for the methane explosion that claimed the life of one coal miner and seriously injured another, federal investigators found.

"These findings should remind everyone in the coal mining community that fundamental mine safety principles are a matter of life and death," said Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "No coal mine is immune to the danger of an explosion. Let us hope that this tragic reminder will help to prevent other explosions in the future."

Investigators determined that prior to the explosion at the Elmo No. 5 mine, an explosive mixture of methane and air migrated, undetected, from a worked-out section into the active area where miners were working.

Contrary to the Elmo No. 5 Mine's approved ventilation plan, 17 permanent ventilation controls had been removed, creating a short-circuit in the air circulation. As a result, the volume and velocity of air was not sufficient to carry away explosive methane gas, allowing the methane buildup.

In addition, the mine operator did not make sure that required safety checks, including tests for methane, were regularly conducted.

Investigators found that mine management did not conduct an effective search program as the law requires to prevent smoking materials from being carried underground, and persons were smoking in the mine. The explosive methane-air mixture was ignited by a butane cigarette lighter.

With inadequate amounts of inert rock dust applied to mine surfaces, investigators said, the ignition's force suspended coal dust in the air, contributing to the severity of the explosion.

"Precautions against coal mine explosions are critical at all times," McAteer said. "In addition, the colder months call for even greater vigilance. The greatest number of coal mine explosions--like the one at Elmo No. 5--happen in the colder part of the year. In the mines, dry winter air plus a drop in the atmospheric pressure can turn a marginal situation into an explosive one. Right now, we hope everyone in the coal mining community will keep that fact in the forefront of their minds."

MSHA investigators noted that immediately prior to the Elmo No. 5 explosion a slight drop in barometric pressure was recorded, which may have increased the potential for methane to migrate from the worked-out areas to the active area.

MSHA previously cited A.A.& W. Coals, Inc., and four other companies that it determined to be joint operators of Elmo No. 5 for nine violations of Federal mine safety standards leading to the explosion. The investigation report released today provides further details on events leading up to the explosion and results of tests conducted by the investigators in determining the explosion's causes. The mine operators face up to $450,000 in civil penalties for the cited violations, to be determined at a later date.

Currently, four of the five cited companies have contested the violations.

Since the Elmo No. 5 explosion MSHA under the direction of Assistant Secretary McAteer has taken several significant initiatives to combat mine explosions. Among other actions, the agency has:

"The knowledge and information that are necessary to prevent coal mine explosions like the one at Elmo No. 5 exist within the coal mining community," McAteer said. "With constant vigilance, and if all of us work together, the toll of explosions can be brought to an end."