MORGANTOWN — A pair of separate accidents at two West Virginia coal operations Friday left one worker dead, injured two others and left a fourth worker unaccounted for, according to company and state mine safety officials.
An electrician was killed when he became caught between a scoop and a continuous mining machine around 1:30 a.m. at the Pocahontas Mine A White Buck Portal near Rupert in Greenbrier County, Leslie Fitzwater of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, said.
The mine is owned by White Buck Coal Co., a subsidiary of Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha identified the victim as Steven O’Dell, 27, of Mount Nebo, an employee of its Alex Energy subsidiary.
O’Dell was pronounced dead at Greenbrier Valley Medical Center in Ronceverte.
“We are all saddened by the loss of a talented colleague and friend,” said Alex Energy President Craig Boggs.
State officials say O’Dell had three years of mining experience — two and a half at the Rupert mine.
In north-central West Virginia, emergency officials were draining a coal slurry pond to search for a bulldozer operator who was unaccounted for after an embankment collapsed, which sent three into the water.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere said a “massive failure” occurred around 12:15 p.m. Friday at the Nolans Run impoundment of Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy’s Robinson Run mine in Harrison County. One dozer operator and two engineers were on the platform when it collapsed.
Both engineers were rescued and were in non-critical condition.
Governor’s office spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said sonar detected an object in the pond and that officials were considering sending in divers. The water is about 12 feet deep.
MSHA personnel were on site, along with company, state and union officials.
Consol Energy spokeswoman Lynn Seay said the cause of the failure was unclear.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin released a statement regarding the accidents.
“Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur,” Tomblin said. “Joanne and I pray for the miners and their families. We ask all West Virginias to do the same.”
The Mountain State’s two U.S. Sens., Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller, also released statements on the accidents.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the mining tragedies that took place earlier today,” Manchin said. “My greatest, deepest sympathies go out to the family of the fallen miner in Greenbrier County, Steve Odell, especially to his wife, Caitlin, his mother, Peggy, along with the entire Odell family.
“The loss of one miner’s life is one life too many. As the families and friends struggle to deal with the tragedies that took place today, we are reminded that we must consistently search for ways to improve safety conditions because our miners’ safety is of the utmost importance,” Manchin said.
“I’m so deeply saddened about the loss of another devoted West Virginia coal miner,” Rockefeller said. “And I’m praying for the two other miners who were injured this afternoon, and the miner who is unfortunately still unaccounted for.
“Our miners work tremendously hard each and every day, and are determined even in the face of danger. It is not an easy task, but it’s an honorable one that makes our state proud. Sharon and I send our thoughts and prayers to the families and friends of Steve Odell and the three other miners during this difficult time.
“The loss of any miner or West Virginia worker is a terrible tragedy, and we must do everything possible to prevent it. Today’s accidents are reminders that there is more we can do to be sure our miners return safely to their families at the end of every shift. A mine safety bill, which I introduced almost three years ago, to fix the problems we know exist still hasn’t passed. I will continue to fight for this bill and our miners.”
O’Dell is the state’s sixth mining fatality this year.
The last death at the White Buck mine in Greenbrier County was on July 1, 2010, when 60-year-old electrician Wilbert Ray Starcher was run over by a piece of heavy equipment.
An MSHA accident report found the driver couldn’t see Starcher because someone had welded a piece of metal onto the vehicle that obscured his vision. The report says the mine’s owner at the time, Massey Energy, later removed the obstruction and trained miners to notify equipment operators before walking on the mine’s haulage road.
Alpha later bought Massey for $7.1 billion. It didn’t immediately comment on the latest accident.
White Buck Coal made news earlier this week when a former president, David C. Hughart, was charged with criminal conspiracy.
Hughart is cooperating with federal prosecutors in their continuing investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, an April 2010 explosion at another former Massey operation that killed 29 men. It was the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades.
Prosecutors say Hughart worked with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations got advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.
Those illegal warnings allegedly gave workers time to conceal life-threatening violations that could have led to citations, fines and costly shutdowns.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Hughart is prepared to plead guilty to the charges, which carry the possibility of six years in prison. No hearing dates have been scheduled.