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MSHA News Release No. 96-019
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: Amy Louviere
Phone: (703) 235-1452

December 12, 1996


The Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and Southern Minerals, Inc. have entered into a holistic settlement valued at $450,000, including a $50,000 payment in civil penalties. The settlement resolves all pending litigation between MSHA, Southern Minerals, True Energy Coal Sales, Inc., and Fire Creek, Inc., resulting from a 1991 methane explosion that killed two coal miners. A major portion of the settlement involves a cooperative mine safety agreement that will promote safe operations among production contractors.

The "Production Contractor Safety Promotion Program," which has been adopted at all current and prospective Southern Minerals' production contractor-operated mines, was established to avoid a repeat of the January 1991 methane explosion at the Fire Creek No. 1 mine in McDowell Co., WVa. After an intense federal investigation, MSHA concluded that Fire Creek, Inc., had failed to comply with fundamental mandatory safety standards, and six of its former officials were charged with falsifying safety records, permitting smoking underground, failing to conduct preshift examinations and allowing improper mine ventilation. Fire Creek was operating as a production contractor of Southern Minerals.

According to the safety program, which will cost Southern Minerals $200,000 over 5 years, each prospective contract production operator must undergo an evaluation for its ability to comply with the Mine Act, be periodically audited by Southern Minerals to determine the overall safety performance at each production contractor-operated mine, and establish procedures for effective communication of safety and health concerns between all involved parties.

In addition, the West Virginia Small Mines Assistance Center will provide Southern Minerals with safety and health expertise, training programs, and other technical assistance tailored to small mine operators at a cost to Southern Minerals of $200,000 over 5 years. The Center, which was established in July 1994 with a West Virginia state grant, is supported by Marshall University, West Virginia University and other colleges and schools throughout the state.

The Center will provide assistance in the area of technology transfer, specialization of training materials, employee assistance programs, training in conducting and recording preshift, onshift and other required examinations, community outreach, programs addressing smoking materials in the mining environment, the development of safety audit standards and procedures, ventilation, and mine-specific safe workplace practices.

"Deficiencies in several of these areas directly contributed to the explosion at the Fire Creek No. 1 Mine," said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health. "Southern Minerals is taking positive steps at its mines and offering help to others as well. This kind of tragedy need never occur again."

"This settlement may serve as a landmark in effective enforcement," said David F. Barbour, an Administrative Law Judge with the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission, in an order approving the settlement. "It is an agreement whose purpose is to raise the level of safety not only in Southern Minerals' production contractor- operated mines, but in all such mines in southern West Virginia."

Under the contractor safety program, MSHA has agreed to provide Southern Minerals with detailed violation history reports for production contractors; accident and injury data for production contractors; the dates that production contractors are required to submit their plans and revisions to MSHA; the status of civil penalties for any and all of Southern Minerals' subsidiaries; and copies of citations, orders and modifications of citations and orders issued at mines operated by production contractors.

MSHA may review training programs developed by Southern Minerals and make available MSHA resources through its Education and Training Branch, the National Mine Health and Safety Academy and other technical branches in the development of training materials. Periodically, MSHA district officials will meet with Southern Minerals personnel to discuss the effectiveness of this program.

The "Production Contractor Safety Promotion Program," which was developed by MSHA with the cooperation of the West Virginia Coal Association, is the fourth cooperative mine safety agreement announced by MSHA. Southern Minerals, located in Welch, WVa., produces coal from four contractor-operated mines.