Feds blame low oxygen for Alabama mine death

AP News
Posted: Nov 24, 2009 5:19 PM

Low oxygen levels apparently caused the death of a coal miner at a west Alabama mine where several others were overcome during a rescue attempt and had to be hospitalized, federal mine safety officials said Tuesday.

The victim and a second miner encountered an area with apparently low oxygen levels during a weekly inspection about 2 a.m. Tuesday at the Jim Walter No. 7 mine near Brookwood, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said.

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

One of the miners had no vital signs when he was found, while the second was having difficulty breathing, MSHA said. The second miner has been taken to University Hospital in Birmingham, Jim Walter spokesman Dennis Hall said.

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

None of the victims' names have been released, though the dead miner was a member of the United Mine Workers, union spokesman Phil Smith said.

"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, MSHA 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 MSHA, Alabama and the UMW are investigating.

Despite MSHA's initial determination that low oxygen caused the accident, Smith cautioned against ruling out heat and high humidity, which were initially 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 MSHA's 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. MSHA and UMW 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.


Huber contributed from Charleston, W.Va.