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Coal miners are well aware that any day could be their last

| Sunday, April 18, 2010

Josh Napper came from a family of coal miners. He understood the dangers of working underground.

Less than two months after taking a job in a Montclair, W.Va., mine complex, Napper wrote a letter to his mother, fiancee and baby daughter, whom he affectionately called "Peanut," in case anything happened to him.

"He used to say to me, 'Make sure you tell me you love me, and hug me when we say goodbye, because you never know if it's the last time you'll ever see me,' " Jennifer Ziegler, 28, Napper's fiancee, said Friday before she and her 20-month-old daughter, Jenna, went to Napper's viewing in southeast Ohio.

"That's why he wrote the letter," she said. "He knew coal mining was a dangerous job and that, one day, he would not return to me."

Joshua Scott Napper, 25, was one of 29 miners killed in an April 5 explosion inside Upper Big Branch mine, operated by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co.

"There is something wrong with this picture," said Cecil Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner and president of the United Mine Workers of America. "When young men go off to war, they write these kinds of letters. But in America, you aren't supposed to write that letter when you're going off to work."

Napper's uncle, Timmy Davis, 51, and his cousin, Cory Davis, 20, died in the explosion.

"They were all together," Ziegler said. "... All three of them were right next to each other."

Coal mining is a dangerous business: That is the oft-repeated mantra of miners and their families. But government statistics on job-related deaths among U.S. industries show it is not the most dangerous: It ranks fourth, after logging, commercial fishing and farming.

From 2006 through 2008, there were 29.2 deaths per 100,000 full-time coal miners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In underground coal mining, there were an average of 6.5 serious injuries per 100 workers in 2008, a rate that was 66 percent higher than the average for all private businesses.

The figures don't include long-term occupational illnesses — such as black lung — that increase the death toll for mining, particularly underground coal mines where miners are more likely to breathe coal dust.

Change is coming, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and President Obama said last week.

The question is whether it will make a difference.

"If you look back through history, (coal mining) disasters and horrible accidents like this have basically, every time, caused changes in legislation, or the creation of additional legislation," said Dave Hudson, a former coal miner and coal company executive with 35 years in the industry. "It's going to be interesting to see what does come from this."

New legislation after the 2006 disaster at International Coal Group's Sago Mine in West Virginia, which killed 12, and a subsequent accident at Massey's Aracoma mine in southern West Virginia, which killed two miners, required mine operators to add underground refuge shelters, extra oxygen bottles for self-rescuers and advanced communications systems.

"And what did that do to prevent what happened at Upper Big Branch• Nothing. Nothing at all," said Hudson, who advises Strata Worldwide, a maker of refuge shelters, and Royal Hydraulic Service in Cokesburg. The Upper Big Branch mine had shelters, but none of the victims made it to those shelters.

"We used to say that coal miners are the only people who, every day when we go to work, go somewhere no one else has ever been before," Hudson said. "The point is that different things can constantly come up. You have to always be on your toes."

Though mining is inherently dangerous, explosions like the one that rocked Upper Big Branch are avoidable, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship does not agree.

"I think what Kevin's saying is the right thing to say, and hopefully, it's true, but there are limitations to mankind. Man can't do what God can do," Blankenship said in an interview last week with the Charleston Daily Mail.

"I'm always hesitant to say, like politicians do, 'We're going to make sure this never happens again.' Because I know we're dealing with human beings, and we're dealing with circumstances sometimes beyond our understanding. I can say that I believe that we will as a company find better ways, somehow, though I have no idea right now what they are," Blankenship told the newspaper.

Federal mine inspectors issued 515 safety violations to Massey in 2009 at Upper Big Branch Mine, including about 50 for "unwarrantable failures," or safety hazards Massey knew existed and did nothing to correct, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and former senior adviser for MSHA.

During the past three years, the mine averaged 329 violations per year, according to MSHA records. Five Massey mines had higher averages for violations.

MSHA's preliminary report on the explosion said more than 39 percent of citations issued at Upper Big Branch in 2009 were for "significant and substantial" violations.

Since 2000, 52 miners died in Massey mines, more than twice the number of fatalities at mines controlled by any other company. However, before the April 5 explosion, Massey and Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. each had 23 fatalities during those years, MSHA statistics show.

And Upper Big Branch Mine did not have the most violations among U.S. coal mines in 2009. Several mines had more violations, including Peabody Energy's Air Quality No. 1 mine in Knox County, Ind., with 1,313 violations and Consol's McElroy Mine in Marshall County, W.Va., with 1,042 violations.

"If you take the laws that are written, if you obey those laws, and you enforce those laws, you wouldn't have this," Roberts said. "Those who would tell you that mining is dangerous, we know that. But those who would tell you that these things have to happen, that these things will happen and that there ain't nothing you can do about it, are damn sure wrong. ... This is not China. This is West Virginia."

China's mining industry is the world's deadliest, where accidents killed 2,631 coal miners last year. That's down from 6,995 deaths in 2002, the most dangerous year on record.

Some say Massey should not shoulder all the blame.

On the grounds of the Upper Big Branch complex is a large sign reminding miners that: "Safety begins with 's' and starts with you."

Jim Lucas, 58, a pastor at Fundamental Baptist Church in Bolt and a Massey coal miner, passed the sign daily. It reminded him that although company officials regularly review safety procedures with employees, it is up to each miner to follow regulations and be safe, he said.

"The company can make the rules, but if I don't follow them, is it the company's fault?" Lucas said.

Hudson, of St. Clairsville, Ohio, never worked for Massey; he was a mine superintendent and a vice president for Consol. He said that "all mines have violations" and that mine operators generally emphasize safety over production.

"Who would want to be responsible for the deaths of 29 men?" Hudson said. "I'm telling you, I cannot imagine somebody down there just rolling the dice and hoping things work out."

Tragedies like this explosion sometimes persuade experienced miners to retire or newcomers to rethink a mining career, Roberts said

"We'll have some of that," he said. "But in West Virginia, these are the best jobs around. They have the best pay and the best benefits."

Retired miner Jimmy Platt, 54, of Whitesville, W.Va., believes there will be no shortage of people willing to work in mines, despite the tragedy at the mine near his hometown.

"Once you get used to it, it's like entering a world of tranquility every day," Platt said. "You're away from it all. You're with your brothers, with family. There's no way any of your problems can reach you down there. I loved it."

Coal miners have a passion for their jobs outsiders cannot understand, said the Rev. Bart Elkins, pastor of Amazing Grace Fellowship in Seth, who counseled family members of some of the dead miners.

"They love what they do," he said. "People trying to change their lives, you can't do that. It would be like taking land from a rancher. This is what they do; they're not being forced into these coal mines. It's their identity."

Ziegler said she wrote her own letter to Napper, which she planned to place in his casket.

"When 'Peanut' gets big, I'm going to tell her that her daddy loved her more than anything," Ziegler said.

"We had plans to have more children and get married. He wanted to go work in the mines so I wouldn't have to work so hard. He did this so we could have a better life."

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