Lawsuit filed by families of two W. Md. coal miners killed in 2007 mishap

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April 15, 2010|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The families of two Western Maryland coal miners who died in a 2007 accident filed a lawsuit Thursday against the strip mine's operator, contending that unsafe conditions led to their deaths.

The $4 million suit was brought by the widows and children of Michael R. Wilt and Dale Jones. The two men were working in a coal pit in Barton on April 17, 2007, when an unstable "highwall" collapsed, raining some 93,000 tons of rock and material on their heavy-equipment vehicles.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the operator, Tri-Star Mining Inc., for violations that it said contributed to the accident. Tri-Star eventually agreed to pay $105,324 in fines under a settlement. The federal agency had initially issued fines of $180,000.

The violations included a failure to correct hazardous conditions and allowing miners to work under dangerous conditions, as well as a failure to conduct adequate examinations of the mine.

The civil suit, filed in Allegany County Circuit Court, names as defendants George R. Beener of Tri-Star, as well as several companies and individuals linked to the mine's operations. A woman who answered Tri-Star's phone Thursday identified Beener as the owner and said he was unavailable to comment.

"It was just a recipe for disaster, and disaster happened; they never should have been in the pit that day," Keith S. Franz, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. The suit contends that even before cracks appeared in the mine wall that day, employees had not been trained to recognize hazards such as those caused by past underground mining and the seepage of water.

At the time of their deaths, Wilt, 38, and Jones, 51, were working in a coal pit at the base of a 275-foot sheer wall carved out by years of mining. Wilt was maneuvering a bulldozer, and Jones was operating a hydraulic excavator.

According to the suit, Tri-Star employee Raymond Tighe "observed cracking" on the highwall about 9 a.m. the day of the accident, after getting reports of falling shale. Although Tighe did not see cracks in other spots on the wall and advised Wilt and Jones to stay away from part of the pit, his examination was "incomplete," the suit claims. Tighe, reached at home, hung up on a reporter.

Beener told Tighe to allow the two men to continue working in the pit and gave him a task away from the mine, the suit claims. But it says Beener did not complete the inspection for Tighe or did so inadequately, yet Wilt and Jones relied on assurances by Tighe and Beener that "the integrity of the highwall was secure."

The wall collapsed less than an hour later, burying Wilt and Jones.

Federal officials have criticized Tri-Star. "Two miners lost their lives because federal safety laws were not followed," Richard E. Stickler, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in a 2007 statement. "Mine operators must be held accountable for their actions, and MSHA will not hesitate to issue stiff penalties against companies that fail to comply with health and safety regulations."

The Tri-Star mine is off Route 36 in the George's Creek Coal Basin, which runs southwest from Frostburg to Westernport. All but two of Maryland's 34 active coal mines are surface or strip mines. The other two are underground operations.

Four coal miners have died in Maryland accidents since 1996. Fatalities also occurred in 2006 and 1999, according to a federal database. Mine safety has received renewed attention since this month's explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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