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Tomblin orders safety stand-down at mines after fourth mining fatality reported

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday ordered a mandatory stand-down at all state coal operations following four mining deaths over the last two weeks.

The latest fatality occurred about 8 p.m. Tuesday at Pocahontas Coal's Affinity Mine in Raleigh County. John Myles, 44, of Hilltop, was shoveling along a coal rib when he was struck and killed by a battery-operated scoop.

The Affinity Mine had recently reopened following another death earlier this month. Edward Finney, 43, of Bluefield, was killed Feb. 7 when a hoist moved unexpectedly.

Tomblin signed an executive order directing all coal mines in the state to halt operations for one hour to review safety regulations with employees.

Speaking at a press conference, Tomblin said the stand-down would begin around shift change Wednesday afternoon, about 3 or 4 p.m.

Former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered a similar temporary stop in production after an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men. He also ordered one in 2006, after the deaths of 16 miners in the back-to-back explosions of International Coal Group's Sago Mine and Massey's Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine.

Pocahontas Coal's corporate counsel, Jennifer Guthrie, said as far as the company is aware, the two deaths are not related. She said the company is cooperating with state and federal investigators but cannot comment further.

Pocahontas Coal is a subsidiary of Tennessee-based United Coal Co., which is controlled by Ukraine-based Metinvest.

In March 2012, MSHA listed the Affinity mine among three that had been caught giving illegal, advance warning that inspectors were onsite the month before. MSHA proposed nearly $126,000 in fines last year, but its database shows only about $16,400 has been paid.

Affinity has been cited 10 times for failing to protect workers from roof falls, 10 times for problems with fire sensors and automatic warning devices, and eight times for problems with ventilation controls. The database shows five equipment-related violations, three violations related to escapeways and two violations related to its roof-control plan, among other things.

So far, MSHA has proposed fines for only two of the minor violations. The rest have yet to be assessed.

Eugene White, director of the state's Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, told gathered reporters his inspectors would visit all coal mine sites in the state over the next few days to assist coal operators in performing additional safety reviews.

White's inspectors will visit underground and surface mines as well as coal preparation plants, more than 500 sites in all.

He said the inspector visits, like the governor's mandatory stand-down, are meant to remind coal miners of safety practices. White said his inspectors also would remind miners of the state's anonymous mine safety tip line, where workers can report unsafe work conditions.

The anonymous tip line was set up by then-Gov. Joe Manchin following April 2010's Upper Big Branch mining disaster.

"A lot of people probably aren't aware we've had four fatals in 14 days. That's alarming," White said after the press conference.

On Feb. 6, Brandon E. Townsend, 34, of Delbarton, was killed by exploding machinery at Patriot Coal's Blue Creek Prep Plant in Kanawha County.

Glen L. Clutter Jr., 51, of Baxter, died Feb. 14 at Consol Energy's Loveridge 22 mine in Marion County. Clutter was struck in the head while trying to get a supply car back on its track.

According to Tomblin's executive order, six West Virginia miners have died since Nov. 2012.

"We've lost too many miners in this state," Delegate Mike Caputo said at the press conference. "These accidents can stop. Coal companies have to take time at every shift ... to make these men and women aware of what's going on."

Caputo said the one-hour stand-down is "a good start."

Tomblin said he would wait until inspections on the recent fatalities are completed before suggesting any new mine safety laws.

"If it's recommended once the investigations are complete, I'd be happy to do that," he said.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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