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Coal mining injury risks high at thin-seam West Virginia mines

West Virginia is the country's leader in underground coal production, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Coal mines in our state employ about 30,000 people under considerable pressure to be productive. West Virginia coal mines and related utilities are responsible for more than 60 percent of the state's business tax revenue.

Two Boone County coal miners lost their lives last month during a retreat mining operation at Brody Mine No. 1, purchased in 2012 by a Patriot Coal subsidiary. The Associated Press reported the men, ages 46 and 48, likely were killed during a coal burst. Safety officials believe coal flew from the walls and struck the miners in a roof collapse, while support pillars were being removed as employees backed out of the mine.

Safety violations were so rampant at Brody No. 1, federal officials last fall labeled the mine a "pattern violator." Brody No. 1 was cited for 192 safety violations over a year ending in March 2014, with 33 violations directly related to employee safety.

Retreat mining dangers aren't exclusive to a single mine. The head of the Miner's Safety and Health project said worker risks during retreat mining are high at mines throughout the southern portion of the state. That's where coal seams or beds are thin due to more than a century of mining.

At Brody No. 1, the coal seam is less than 5 feet thick, forcing miners to work in cramped quarters, plus there are dangers other than collapses and coal bursts. To access coal in thin seams, miners sometimes find it necessary to cut beyond coal into rock. Cutting into silica or quartz releases dust that, when inhaled, can lead to severe respiratory disease.

Victims' benefits for coal mining injuries and fatalities are available through workers' compensation. However, other financial relief also may be available through civil claims against negligent third parties.

Source: West Virginia Public Broadcasting, "Brody Mine Deaths Ignite Old Safety Concerns" Jessica Lilly, Jun. 02, 2014

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