MORGANTOWN -- The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration on Thursday designated two West Virginia coal mines and one in Kentucky as pattern violators, meaning they've repeatedly broken federal health and safety regulations over the past year.
One is Pocahontas Coal Co.'s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, where two men died within two weeks of each other in February. General Counsel Mark McCormick said Affinity's parent company, Tennessee-based United Coal, disputes both the label and the grounds for it.
The others mines are Brody Mining's Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, W.Va., and Tram Energy's Mine No. 1 in Floyd County, Ky.
They're the first mines added to the list since MSHA began using revised screening criteria that went into effect in March, but MSHA director Joe Maid said others could be added.
When a mine is put on the Pattern of Violations -- or POV -- list, it is subject to a higher level of scrutiny. The designation is one of MSHA's toughest enforcement actions, reserved for operations that pose the greatest threat to workers' lives. It also puts more responsibility on the operator to identify and correct safety problems.
Now, if a federal inspector writes a citation for a significant and substantial violation at any of the three mines, an order will be issued to withdraw workers and cease operations.
In all, MSHA reviewed 14,600 U.S. mines during the past 12 months, identifying nine operators as potential pattern violators. Ultimately, only three made the POV list. Main said that shows the review process is working.
"Many operators are cleaning up their acts, even when MSHA is not looking over their shoulders," he said.
Main said Affinity was cited for 124 serious violations during the review period, one-fourth of which involved "high negligence or reckless disregard for the health and safety of miners."
Affinity also got 35 closure orders, third-most in the U.S.
Edward Finney of Bluefield, Va., died Feb. 7 at the Affinity Mine when he was pinned under a hoist he'd been moving trash into. Hoists are used to move miners, equipment and supplies between the surface and the underground operation.
Miner John Myles of Hilltop was crushed by a scoop at the same mine on Feb. 19.
Federal records show MSHA had cited the Affinity mine for some 65 violations between January and the February fatalities, for everything from failure to maintain mine and escapeway maps to allowing combustible materials to accumulate.
In March 2012, MSHA also listed the Affinity mine among three that had been caught giving illegal, advance warning that inspectors were onsite the month before.