WHARTON, W.Va. — Two miners killed inside a coal mine worked for a company that had so many safety problems federal officials deemed it a "pattern violator," a rare designation reserved for the industry's worst offenders.
Brody Mine No. 1 was one of only three mines last year to earn the label that regulators have put greater emphasis on since the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion killed 29 miners about 10 miles away. The designation subjects the mine to greater scrutiny from regulators.
Brody No. 1 is owned by a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, which in its annual report last December blamed the problems on a previous owner and said it was "vigorously contesting" the designation.
The workers at Brody No. 1 were killed when the floor collapsed Monday night during a coal burst, a violent failure of a roof, pillar or wall of coal along a passage inside the mine, according to the company and state and federal officials. Coal bursts have been a hazard for decades.
The burst occurred during retreat mining operations — when pillars that support the roof are collapsed and removed from a mined area. Once the entire mine has collapsed, it is abandoned.
In October, Brody No. 1 was one of three coal mines added to a Pattern of Violations list for repeatedly breaking federal health and safety regulations over the previous year. It was cited for 253 serious violations.
The designation is one of MSHA's toughest enforcement actions, reserved for operations that pose the greatest threat to workers' lives. It also meant that if a federal inspector were to find another significant violation, an order would be issued to withdraw miners from a specific area, effectively ceasing operations until the problem is corrected there.
Asked for comment on its safety record, a Patriot Coal spokeswoman referred to the company's latest annual report. Patriot's subsidiary purchased the mine Dec. 31, 2012.
But from April 1, 2013, to March 31 of this year, the mine was cited for 192 safety violations, including 33 for high or reckless disregard for miners' health and safety.
It wasn't immediately clear whether any of the violations could have had anything to do with a coal burst.
Since January, six accidents have occurred at Brody No. 1, including one in which a miner's finger was caught in machinery and a portion had to be amputated, according to online federal records.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has taken several steps to improve its enforcement of safety regulations after the Upper Big Branch explosion, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. Among them: impact inspections of problem mines, such as Brody No. 1, and "Rules to Live By."
In January, the agency announced it had addressed the 100 recommendations published in a 2012 report by a team of experts appointed by then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Last week, MSHA reported that eight miners died in accidents in the first three months of 2014.
Brody No. 1 is located off a two-lane road that winds through lush, tree-covered mountains. Pockets of modest one-story houses and mobile homes sit in clusters on small patches of flat land along the road. While the mine is about 10 miles away from the shuttered Upper Big Branch, it would take more than an hour to drive from one to the other.
Brody No. 1 employs about 270 workers. Killed were Gary P. Hensley, 46, of Chapmanville, and Eric D. Legg, 48, of Twilight.
Robert Rash, chief of the Wharton-Barrett Volunteer Fire Department, said Legg became a coal miner after he graduated from high school.
"That's all that's around here, actually. Deep mine and strip mine," Rash said.
Barry Brown, Legg's friend and a former co-worker, said Legg was going to start a new job later this week at Patriot's Big Mountain Mine. He was a good worker who loved to hunt and fish.
"He was like a brother to me. Me and him, we did a lot together," Brown said. "Every boss wanted him on their section because he was a good guy. He could do anything in the coal mines."