TIM HUBERCHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ Continuing its get-tough approach toward scofflaw mine operators, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration designated two coal mines with chronic records of violating federal law for strict enforcement Tuesday. New West Virginia Mining's Apache Mine in McDowell County and Richmond, Va.-based James River Coal Co.'s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Kentucky are the first U.S. mines ever designated for a pattern of violations. The decision allows MSHA to shut down and evacuate any section of either mine when inspectors find a serious violation. Normally, a mine operator is given time to fix the problem without disrupting production. The mines are among 14 warned late last year that they faced potential designation for having a pattern of violations. The others either reduced what are known as significant and substantial violations or stopped production. But at the Apache and Abner Branch mines, the number of serious violations increased after the operators were warned, MSHA director Joe Main said. "You have two mines that wound up with a higher S&S rate than before the notices were sent to them. I think that raises great concerns," Main said. "The great disappointment is this, that they didn't take measures that they should have to fix their problems." No one answered New West Virginia Mining's telephone and a spokeswoman for James River did not immediately return a message. The action is the latest crackdown by MSHA since 29 miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine about 50 miles south of Charleston on April 5, 2010. MSHA rewrote the pattern of violations rules after criticism that it missed designating the mine for stricter enforcement after finding numerous violations during inspections of the mine owned by Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. The agency also launched so-called impact inspections targeting mines with poor safety records and took Massey to court to shut down its Freedom Energy in Kentucky until the operation fixed numerous serious violations. Massey settled by agreeing to close the mine permanently.
"We're trying to send a message to the mining industry in that, you know, you don't want to go down this path," Main said. "There are some in the industry that don't get it and I think we have two here."MSHA tried to designate Massey's Tiller No. 1 mine in Virginia as a persistent violator, but was overruled by a Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission judge last year. This time, both mines have more than enough violations to make the designation stick, Main said. That may be moot in the case of the Apache mine, which seems to have ceased production. The relatively small operation employed 34 miners and produced about 90,000 tons of coal last year, according to MSHA records. James River subsidiary Bledsoe Coal is continuing to operate the Abner Branch mine, which employs about 73 miners and produced 223,476 tons last year. The mine faces the unpleasant prospect of repeated shutdowns for each serious violation, which Main noted have been increasing. To get back to normal, the mine must pass a complete inspection without a serious violation. "That's a pretty heavy lift for any mine operator to have," Main said. "They have to accomplish something that they haven't been able to accomplish."