Feds blame low oxygen for Ala. mine death

AP News
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Posted: Nov 24, 2009 10:07 PM

Low oxygen levels likely caused the death of a coal miner in a west Alabama mine where several others were overcome during a rescue attempt, federal mine safety officials said Tuesday.

James Chaney, 53, of Berry, was killed. He and Milton Etheridge, 59, of McCalla, entered an area with low oxygen levels early Tuesday when they were inspecting the Jim Walter No. 7 mine near Brookwood, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said.

They were found by a foreman after failing to report with a call as they normally would, according to the administration and a spokesman for mine owner Jim Walter Resources of Tampa, Fla.

Chaney had no vital signs, while Etheridge was having difficulty breathing and was taken to a hospital, mine safety officials said.

Five rescuers who were overcome while trying to help the men were taken to a hospital, with three released and two continuing to be treated, Hall said.

Union spokesman Phil Smith said Chaney was a member of the United Mine Workers.

"My deepest sympathies and the sympathies of the entire Walter Energy family go out to the family of the deceased," Walter Energy President George Richmond said in a statement. The company has idled the mine for at least 24 hours.

The cause of the low oxygen hasn't been determined, mine safety spokeswoman Amy Louviere said in an e-mail. However, the men were inspecting air controls that dilute dust and gases such as methane from a remote section of the mine, according to Louviere and Hall.

Inspectors from mine safety, Alabama and the UMW are investigating.

Despite the initial determination that low oxygen caused the accident, Smith cautioned against ruling out heat and high humidity, which were at first reported as potential causes.

At 2,150 feet, the mine is "very deep" and subject to potential high temperatures, Smith said. "Our guys are saying you really don't know until the autopsy's done."

Hall declined to comment on the initial conclusions about low oxygen.

Overall, the mine has a normal safety record, with 17 accidents in the first quarter, 15 in the second and 24 in the third. By most standards, the No. 7 is a large underground mine. Records show it employs 703 people and produced 2.85 million tons of coal in 2008.

Another Alabama mine operated by Jim Walter was the site of one of the nation's worst coal mine disasters on Sept. 23, 2001, when 13 miners died in a pair of explosions at the No. 5 mine at Brookwood. Most of the men died while trying to rescue four co-workers hurt in the first blast.

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Huber contributed from Charleston, W.Va.