Friday, October 5, 2007

Owners say U.S. rules kill coal mines

Owners say U.S. rules kill coal minesOperators in Schuylkill and elsewhere allege federal bullying
.Allentown Morning Call - Allentown,PA

By Chris Parker
October 5, 2007

Owners of small, independent coal mines in Schuylkill and Northumberland counties say the federal government is unfairly enforcing safety rules, shutting down and fining the operations to the point of killing the industry in this region.
The Independent Miners and Associates of Tremont, an anthracite mine industry advocacy group, wants the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to call off what they believe is a concerted effort by MSHA's District One office in Wilkes-Barre to close mines in the region.
On Thursday, they called a meeting of miners at the Joliett Fire Company.''These people are angry. All they want to do is work for a living,'' said IMA president Cindy Rothermel.
Rothermels' father was killed in a mine accident; her husband and sons are miners. She, too, worked in the industry. Two weeks ago, MSHA shut down her husband's mine, the RS&W Coal Co., Pottsville.
Several miners spoke, saying that MSHA is harassing them. They complained of endless paperwork, citations issued for trivial infractions, and bullying, threats and intimidation.
William D. Sparvieri, MSHA's acting district manager, on Wednesday declined to comment on the accusations.
The gathering drew at least 125 people, some of whom proudly wore the black grime of coal dust on their faces. Among them was Roland Klinger of Spring Glenn, a miner at least 45 years.
He's been hurt ''a couple times -- couple scars, nothing major,'' he said. He said he ''hopes to get something accomplished'' through the meeting.
''These inspectors are coming in here and they're trying to tell us what to do. They make it sound like we're going down in there and doing things illegal. We don't do it that way. You've gotta keep it safe for yourself, and we always did, and we always will.''
Underground, men are brothers, Klinger said. ''We are like family. You keep it safe -- one guy watches out for the next guy,'' he said.
Sparvieri did not attend. ''I was not invited to the meeting,'' he said. ''To my knowledge there has been no one from this office invited to the meeting.''
Rothermel said she invited U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-17th District; Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.; U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, D-10th District; and state Rep. Tim Seip, D-Schuylkill, to the gathering. Seip and a Carney aide attended. Rothermel said her group would meet with Holden and the others in coming days.
''It is our position that, unless we are able to change the environment in which underground miners are regulated, the industry in this area will be wiped out within a short amount of time,'' the IMA wrote in an invitation to the politicians.
''Not only will there be a significant impact on our local economy, but it will also be extremely difficult for some of your local constituents to find coal to heat their homes this winter.''
Holden's office in 2005 urged an investigation into the allegations, but turned up no wrongdoing.
MSHA has been looking hard at area coal mines since the fatal mine disasters in West Virginia and Utah; closer to home, there was the methane blast that killed miner Dale Reightler, 43, of Donaldson, at the R&D Coal Mine in Tremont last Oct. 23. MSHA has shut down the mine and fined its owners nearly $900,000 for what the agency calls ''flagrant'' violations of safety rules.
R&D owner David Himmelberger is fighting the ruling.
He attended the meeting, but declined to speak to a reporter. R&D was the first mining company cited for flagrant violations under federal rules forged in 2006. The rules allow much higher financial penalties, and the company could have been fined about $1.33 million for the violations found.
But Rothermel and others say the push has gone too far. She said changes in management at District One have resulted in unfair enforcement of safety rules.
MSHA a few years ago placed John Kuzar and Sparvieri in charge of that office. Since then, too many mines have been closed, Rothermel said.
''We have lost about half of our mines through shutdowns. There were 29. Now there are 10,'' she said.
Her group wants Sparvieri and Kuzar out. ''These folks aren't only interested in applying the law,'' she said. ''They are interested in shutting us down, period.''