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MSHA News Release No. 95-035
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452

September 14, 1995

VIRGINIA MINE OPERATOR GETS SIX MONTHS FOR VIOLATING LAW

ABINGDON, Va. -- Coal mine operator William Ridley Elkins was sentenced to six months imprisonment and mine foreman Kenneth Ray Brooks was sentenced to three months of community confinement yesterday for criminal violations of federal mine safety law in connection with the 1992 Southmountain mine explosion, which claimed the lives of eight Virginia miners.

The sentencing concluded federal criminal proceedings in which Southmountain Coal Company and five individuals have pleaded guilty and fines totaling $2,016,000 have been imposed for criminal violations of federal mine safety requirements.

Samuel G. Wilson, U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sentenced Elkins to three years of supervised release following his six months imprisonment, and a $5,000 fine. Brooks was sentenced to 90 days of community confinement, a year of supervised release, and a $5,000 fine.

Elkins had earlier pleaded guilty to making false statements and representations, specifically by falsifying information on a legal identity report submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) so as to conceal his own role in operating, controlling, and supervising the Southmountain No. 3 Mine. Brooks had pleaded guilty to falsifying mine record books and allowing miners to smoke underground.

"Eight miners lost their lives in the Southmountain mine explosion, and another miner was injured," said Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "Nothing can undo the suffering caused by the explosion, but the company and officials who willfully violated mine safety requirements have been held accountable, as federal mine safety law provides.

"Above all, the Southmountain mine explosion was a tragedy that should serve as a perpetual reminder to everyone in the coal mining community: vigilance in maintaining the safety precautions to prevent mine explosions is truly a matter of life and death," McAteer said.

Earlier this year, Judge Wilson sentenced Southmountain Coal Company, Inc., to pay $2 million for criminal violations leading to the explosion.

Judge Wilson earmarked $900,000 of the $2 million penalty as restitution to be shared among the families of the victims and the single injured survivor of the blast. Judge Wilson also apportioned $436,732 in criminal fines to cover civil penalties assessed against Southmountain by MSHA as a result of the explosion.

As part of the plea agreement with Southmountain Coal Company, charges against Southmountain parent Apple Coal Company were dropped, with Apple agreeing to take financial responsibility for Southmountain's fines.

In addition, Southmountain foreman David Lee Goode last year was sentenced to serve 12 months in prison, followed by a year's supervised release, and fined $3,000. Earlier this year, Southmountain mine superintendent Freddie Carl Deatherage was sentenced to serve 60 days of community confinement, followed by 12 months of supervised release, and pay a $3,000 fine. Paul Douglas Ramey, also a foreman at the Southmountain mine, was placed on 12 months supervised release. All three had pleaded guilty to willful violations of Federal mine safety law, including violations related to smoking prevention underground.

The methane explosion at the Southmountain No. 3 Mine near Norton, Va., on December 7, 1992, resulted from multiple violations by the mining company of Federal safety requirements, MSHA accident investigators determined. Methane gas accumulated in the mine due to violations of mine ventilation and examination requirements, and was ignited by a cigarette lighter.

McAteer expressed appreciation to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, Robert P. Crouch, Jr., and his staff for their vigorous action in the Southmountain prosecution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant and U.S. Labor Department attorney James B. Crawford prosecuted the Southmountain case. MSHA special investigator Stanley Blankenship also deserves special mention for his work in connection with the Southmountain case, McAteer said.

"Since the Southmountain explosion, MSHA has conducted nationwide campaigns on coal mine explosion prevention, including focused inspections, education and public information initiatives," McAteer said. "Every mine accident needs to serve as a lesson to help prevent the next."