Jessica Lilly Published

Brody Mine Deaths Ignite Old Safety Concerns


It’s been more than two weeks since 48-year-old Eric Legg, of Twilight and 46-year-old Gary Hensley, of Chapmanville, died in a Boone County mine. They were using a coal extraction method called retreat mining referred to by safety advocates as the most dangerous form of mining. That’s not the only safety concern at mines in Boone County and throughout Appalachia.

Retreat Mining is Dangerous

Charlie ‘Mouse’ Ashley is a retired miner who has experience working in a retreat mine setting.

“It is nerve racking,” retired miner Charlie “Mouse” Ashley said. “When you’re pulling pillars away from the mine you’re taking away the support and it will fall.”

That’s the nature of the method. Essentially miners are hired, in part, to remove coal and make the roof collapse on purpose.

In 2004 a miner from Kentucky, concerned about his safety in a retreat mine video taped the last moments of his life the day after talking to his wife about his concerns.

“Retreat mining is always dangerous but especially in Southern West Virginia now where we’re mining thinner seams and more discontinuous geology,” Sam Petsonk Director of the Miner’s Safety and Health project.

“Attention to safety and proper planning is probably more important because the dangers tend to be greater at greater depth and more marginal coal reserves.”

Miners carefully and skillfully cut away at pillars that are supporting a mountain above their heads. The company creates a roof control plan to determine the safest way to remove the supports and create the collapse.

In wake of the Brody tragedy last month, safety advocates are sounding off, once again, about the dangers of retreat mining.

Former MSHA leader Davitt McAtteer told the Charleston Gazette, ““It should be abolished.” 

This is nothing new. After Crandall Canyon, federal lawmakers discussed the dangerous practice during a  U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing.

Low Coal Creates New Dangers

Like several coal seams throughout Appalachia, Boone County’s coal reserves have been substantially diminished after more than 100 years of mining.  Mine operators are now producing coal from basically leftover coal reserves in which even isolated instances of noncompliance of safety rules can cause substantial injuries and death. 

In 1995, the U.S. Bureau of Mines found that the depleted coal reserves in Boone County “will be able to sustain mining activities for no more than 20 years.”  Nearly 20 years later, we continue to mine coal in these last remaining reserves.

Court documents show that at Brody Number One, a seam of coal is being mined that’s about 53 inches, or almost 4 and a half feet thick, and since we’re talking about a geological formation, the thickness likely declines over distance.

Imagine trying to maneuver equipment, machines, or even walk with a ceiling that low.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, pointed out that  mining these thinner seams often means deliberately cutting into more rock formations  other than coal. That often means increased risks of developing black lung disease as well.  

“When you’re mining a thin coal seam often an operator will mine adjacent rock to give themselves a little more space,” Sam Petsonk said. “Say if you’re in a 36 inch coal seam or less you’re probably going to cut some extra top to give yourself extra space in the mine to maneuver. That means that you find yourself cutting non-coal rock often quartz bearing  which contains highly  toxic quartz dust.”

So when mining low or thin coal seams, miners often cut “substantial amounts of rock, often containing quartz or silica, above and/or below the coal seam.

As noted on MSHA’s website, miners develop silicosis in their lungs through overexposure to dust containing silica. Silicosis is kind of like black lung disease on steroids. The quartz crystals cut, scar, and disable the lungs much more severely than coal dust.

Possible Safety Improvements

  • Seismic Monitoring: This seismic monitoring technology has existed for several decades, and it is now more widely available and more commercially viable than ever before. It basically tracks geological activity in the ground. This information could be helpful in a mine setting to help determine increased pressure.
  • Low Coal Long Wall Machine: There’s also machinery that makers claim will reduce dust, and follow seams more safely. It’s commonly referred to as the low coal long wall machine. The machine helped the Pinnacle mine in Wyoming County set a record for most productivity.

  • Miner’s Rights: The state office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training says the Brody mine did not have a miners’ representative; a right created by the Federal Mine Act that enables two miners to agree to elect a person to serve as the miners’ representative. Among other things, a miners’ rep can go with an MSHA inspector to point out safety concerns or suggest changes to things like roof control plans.

The Brody mine had a history of poor safety and was even recognized by MSHA as a pattern violator. A status that the mine is contesting with the Mine Safety and Health review board.