Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health
On Release of the Jim Walter No. 5 Mine Accident Report
December 11, 2002
Good afternoon, and thank you for being here.
As you know, 13 miners lost their lives in a double explosion at the Jim Walter No. 5 mine not far from here, a little more than a year ago.
Today I want to cover three items: first, the accident report; second; immediate safety adjustments; and third, the status of our internal review.
At that time, I announced that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of that tragedy and would provide you with a full report. That investigation has now been completed.
This morning, together with MSHA's accident investigation team, I met with the families of the 13 victims and presented them with the report. Today we also are making the report available to you and to the public.
At the same time, today we are taking immediate action to strengthen emergency preparedness throughout the underground coal mining industry.
Based upon lessons learned from the Jim Walter accident and elsewhere, we are issuing an emergency temporary standard to improve emergency preparedness in the nation's coal mines. The new requirements were placed on open file at the office of the Federal Register this morning. They will be published tomorrow and will take effect immediately. I will say more about the emergency temporary standard in a moment after I discuss the investigation's findings.
The Investigation Report
It is our intention to distribute these findings throughout the mining community so others can thoroughly understand what happened and learn how to prevent similar tragedies.
To conduct the investigation I named a team of nine MSHA specialists from outside the district where the accident occurred, headed by Ray McKinney, who was then MSHA's district manager in Norton, Virginia. The team represented a wide range of experience. It included an accident investigation program manager from MSHA headquarters; an assistant district manager from New Stanton, Pennsylvania; a coal mine inspection supervisor from Pikeville, Kentucky; a mining engineer from Triadelphia, West Virginia; and others.
Before reaching their conclusions MSHA's accident investigation team thoroughly examined the mine and collected physical evidence underground. They conducted numerous interviews and performed extensive laboratory tests. They then had to assemble the information collected into a complete picture of what happened.
The report tells the whole story, but here is a summary.
Summary of Findings
On the evening of September 23, four miners were working on the mine's No. 4 section.
Three of the miners were building additional roof support structures of interlocking timbers in an effort to stabilize a deteriorating roof condition.
At 5:17 p.m., a roof collapse actually occurred. The fall of rock buried a battery charging station, where large batteries from mobile scoops were taken to recharge.
The fall of rock also interfered with normal ventilation of the area.
The Jim Walter No. 5 mine has a history of liberating large amounts of methane. Within minutes after the rock fall buried the charging station, an explosive mixture of methane and air built up. A spark from the now-damaged battery ignited it.
The force of the first explosion extended about 200 feet in one direction and 500 feet in the other. It injured the three miners working in the immediate area and another miner located at the track. One of the miners was unable to walk. The others went to get help.
The first explosion also damaged the mine's ventilation controls - primarily these are cinder block walls called stoppings and overcasts that force air to follow certain paths throughout the mine.
When stoppings or overcasts are damaged, the air can short-circuit, and that is what happened. A more extensive body of methane built up throughout the No. 4 section.
Response to the emergency was disorganized. The three miners who had gone for help met other miners and alerted them. A foreman telephoned to the surface. The official on telephone duty at the surface notified mine management and started contacting other miners underground.
There was no general order to evacuate the mine and no notification in most cases that there had been an explosion. Some miners were directed to the No. 4 section to fight a fire.
Electric power to the No. 4 section was cut off, which is standard procedure in either a fire or an explosion. However, after the first explosion more methane accumulated. The explosive mixture reached the end of the section track rails, where there was a block light, which is a device similar to a traffic light that was used to control rail traffic in the mine. This device was on a separate power source and still energized.
Just as a number of miners converged on the No. 4 section, the second explosion occurred. The investigators believe the block light was the most likely ignition source of the explosion.
The second explosion was massive. It had more methane to fuel it, and in fact, it was more than just a methane explosion.
Large amounts of fine coal dust were raised into the air adding significantly more fuel and giving the explosion new life. The second explosion extended into the No. 4 section and traveled outward toward the mine's ventilation shaft resulting in at least 12 of the 13 fatalities.
Federal safety standards contain requirements designed specifically to prevent coal dust becoming part of an explosion. The floor and ribs - that is, the walls of the mine - are required to be blanketed with rock dust, which is powdered limestone, an inert material. Limestone will not burn, and if there is enough powdered limestone mixed with coal dust it will dilute the coal dust so that it cannot fuel an explosion.
MSHA investigators found that throughout this area of the mine there was not enough rock dust to prevent coal dust from fueling an explosion. In fact, out of 123 samples of dust taken, only two had the required amount of inert material. This was a very serious violation and a critical factor in the severity of the second explosion.
MSHA's investigators have today cited Jim Walter Resources for eight violations directly contributing to the explosion:
One violation for failure to adequately support the mine roof. The roof collapse started the chain of events leading to the two explosions and 13 fatalities.
One violation for inadequate rock dusting. Lack of rock dust allowed coal dust to become fuel in the second explosion making it much more extensive and forceful.
Four violations for inadequate pre-shift and on-shift company safety examinations that should have detected the inadequate rock-dusting.
One violation for failure to initiate evacuation procedures immediately after the first explosion, and
One violation for failure to conduct fire drills on a regular basis.
By law each violation cited by MSHA entails a civil penalty of up to $55,000 per violation. Penalties will be determined later under criteria specified by law.
Emergency Temporary Standard
It is especially tragic that most of the victims in this accident were bravely responding to an emergency and were in harm's way because of poor emergency management. We must prevent such tragic situations in the future.
For this reason, we are making use of a special provision in the Federal mine safety law to issue an emergency temporary standard on emergency evacuations. That means we can temporarily bypass normal rulemaking procedures to put these protections in place immediately.
The new standard mandates that in any mine emergency, a designated responsible person must take charge and evacuate the mine if there is imminent danger to the miners. Only properly trained and equipped persons essential to respond to the emergency may remain underground. The temporary standard also broadens existing requirements for a program of instruction for firefighting and evacuation.
Starting tomorrow, the temporary standard will be in place to help prevent another sequence of events like the one that led to the fatalities at Jim Walter No. 5.
The new rule will be effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register tomorrow. Meanwhile we will accept written public comments on the rule for the next 30 days. We will hold four public hearings on the temporary standard in February. We will review and consider all comments received, and we may modify the rule, before reissuing it in its final form. The process to make the rule permanent will be completed within the next nine months.
One final word. Questions have been raised regarding MSHA, and whether we properly followed our mine inspection policies and procedures at Jim Walter No. 5 Mine. That is a fair question, and one I also want answered. For this reason, I ordered an internal review specifically looking at the agency's actions in order to answer that question. Upon completion of that review, answers to those questions will be addressed.
We must make sure that the tragic loss of life at Jim Walter No. 5 is never repeated. And we are taking action. We have issued the emergency temporary standard, and we are doing more.
Throughout this country, MSHA is doing business in a new way. We are changing the paradigm. We are digging to uncover the root causes of mine accidents. We are using all of the tools provided in the law - enforcement, and education and training, and technical assistance - to improve miner safety.
In every action we take, I have directed that we must focus on how this action will improve the health and safety of miners. The legacy of Jim Walter No. 5 must -- and will -- be greater safety for all American miners. We must make sure that miners throughout this country come home to their families, safe and healthy, at the end of every working day
Thank you. I will now answer any questions you may have.