Energy Blend: As on-the-job deaths increase across the US, mine safety in spotlight | CraigDailyPress.com

Energy Blend: As on-the-job deaths increase across the US, mine safety in spotlight

A team at the Twentymile Mine in west Routt County operates the longwall coal mining system that produced 2.6 million tons of coal in 2016.

When a surface mechanic, working alone, didn't report at the end of his shift Aug. 3, an early morning search began at Deserado Mine, located about 82 miles west of Craig.

The search ended at 1:30 a.m., when Jason Stevens, 32, a miner with six years experience from Vernal, Utah, was found crushed under part of a steel structure he had been dismantling.

Stevens was the second miner to lose his life on the job this year in Northwest Colorado. Greg Cortez, 57, of Craig, passed away unexpectedly on June 29 while at work at Trapper Mine.

According to statistics maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Health and Safety Administration, by the end of September 2017, 14 coal miners across the United States had died on the job, 13 as a result of accidents.

Mine fatalities in the United States had been decreasing prior to this year, with nine deaths recorded in 2016, none of them in Colorado.

This year, as fatalities climbed, Congress was considering an amendment to the Department of Labor that would have reduced funding for mine safety by 10 percent, but the measure was defeated in the House of Representatives.

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"I am gratified that a majority of the House agreed with our position that we should not be cutting coal mine safety at a time when we are experiencing rising fatalities and serious injuries in America's mines," United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a Sept. 14 news release.

Federal coal mine fatality statistics from 1900 to the present reveal the deadliest year on record was 1907, when almost 680,500 people worked in the industry and more than 3,200 miners lost their lives.

Since 2004, there have been a total of 337 coal mine fatalities, including four in Colorado, 74 in Kentucky and 130 in West Virginia.

This year's increase in fatal accidents coincides with an increase in production.

By the end of August this year, Colorado miners had produced more than 10 million tons of coal, suffering two fatalities and 12 other reported accidents, according to data from the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety.

By comparison, in the full 12 months of 2016, the division recorded 16 accidents and no fatalities with mines producing almost 13 million tons.

Across the U.S., coal production increased in 2017.

Production was estimated at about 530 million short tons for the first eight months of 2017. That's 64 million short tons, or 14 percent, higher than production for the same period in 2016, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EIA found that production slowed to an estimated 74 million short tons for August 2017, the first time since October 2015 that production topped 70 million short tons.

With more miners working and accidents on the rise, MSHA started a new program in June to stem the increase in fatalities. The program sees inspectors visit mines to help operators improve training for people new to their jobs.

The proactive approach hasn't been enough to curb the accidents.

The accident at Deserodo Mine occurred "above ground inside the coal processing building, as the worker was attempting to remove a portion of a steel beam," according to a news release issued in August by Danny Clark, the mine's human resources manager.

Three other accidents occurred at the mine in 2017, according to data collected by the MSHA. In one event, a worker sustained a broken hand and lacerations that required stitches, and in another, the tip of a worker’s finger was amputated.

Accidents with powered haulage and machinery were the leading causes of fatalities recorded by MSHA. More fatalities have occurred in underground mines — eight, this year — compared to five in above ground mines.

"We stand ready to continue to work with Congress, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the coal industry to enhance safety. But cutting back on safety and health merely to encourage enhanced production puts miners at risk and should never be allowed," Roberts said. "We have lost too many miners to ever forget that the most important resource to come out of a mine is the miner, not the coal."

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.