Colorado’s most productive coal mine is also its most dangerous

The Foidel Creek Mine in Routt County is one of Colorado’s most productive coal mines, churning out more than a quarter of all the coal mined in the state. But it’s also one of the state’s most dangerous mines, accounting for nearly a third of Colorado’s coal-mining injuries in 2009.

Of the 88 coal-mining injuries in Colorado last year, 29 of them occurred at the Foidel Creek Mine between Oak Creek and Hayden, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety’s “Monthly Coal Detail Report (pdf).”

The Foidel Creek Mine was the only Colorado coal mine that landed on a Mine Safety and Health Administration list of 57 problem mines subject to a surprise inspection earlier this month in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia on April 5.

The busiest mine in the state with more than 500 miners working any given month (no other Colorado mine reported more than 400), Foidel Creek, operated by Peabody Energy’s Twentymile Coal Company, has been hit with more than $600,000 in fines for various safety violations since January 2007.

MSHA officials in a release last week said the inspection blitz targeted “coal mines whose history of underground conditions indicated a significant number of violations and/or conditions that may include problems relating to methane accumulations, ventilation practices, rock dust applications and inadequate mine examinations.”

Those are thought to be the conditions that contributed to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where owner and operator Massey Energy has since come under fire for an creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in its workforce.

“The purpose of these inspections is to provide assurance that no imminent dangers, explosions, hazards or other serious health or safety conditions and practices are present at these mines,” Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a release. “Just last week, we pledged to the president that we will do whatever it takes to make sure another tragedy like the one that claimed 29 miners’ lives at Upper Big Branch never happens again.”

But never-again vows have followed other mining tragedies, according to TCI sister-site the Washington Independent.

In Colorado, however, where criticism of the coal industry is centered more on environmental concerns than safety issues, Twentymile is working hard to improve its record at Foidel Creek, according to spokeswoman Beth Sutton.

“Structural changes were initiated at Twentymile, including dedicating additional staff resources for safety and compliance training and accident prevention to improve results,” Sutton said in an email to the Colorado Independent. “We have achieved significant progress, which includes an 80 percent improvement in Twentymile’s safety rate through the first quarter, and a 54 percent annualized improvement in citations. We’ll continue these efforts working toward our safety vision of zero incidents of any kind.”

In 2009, Twentymile was hit with 621 citations at the Foidel Creek Mine, ranging from $100 up to more than $40,000, many of which are still be contested. Reasons for the fines range from accumulations of coal dust and other combustible materials to improper methods of measuring methane and oxygen levels – factors cited as likely causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion, although the MSHA has yet to determine a definitive cause.

So far in 2010, Foidel Creek has been cited 79 times in the first quarter of the year – a pace of approximately 320 violations for the year. In the days following the surprise MSHA inspection on the weekend of April 17-18, Foidel Creek was hit with another 14 citations between April 19 and April 21.

“On any given day this past year, we had an average of seven MSHA inspectors at our facilities nationwide,” said Sutton, who works for Twentymile parent company Peabody Energy. “Inspections are routine and frequent. We continue open dialogue with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the company is achieving record safety results.”

An MSHA spokeswoman in Washington did not return a call requesting comment.

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