In the wake of the fatal accident, Gov. Ernie Fletcher has called on state mine regulators to look at whether Kentucky has adequate regulations to ensure the aging equipment used in some coal mines is not putting workers at risk.
Yates, 44, of Shelbiana, was using a roof-bolting machine, which inserts metal rods into the mine roof to hold it in place, when the layer of rock 20 feet wide and more than 4 feet thick killed him Tuesday.
The accident occurred about 900 feet inside Maverick Mining Co. LLC No. 1 mine in Pikeville, a coal town near the Kentucky-Virginia border.
Fletcher said he wants to make sure coal companies are using the newest possible technology in underground mines.
“If there is clear evidence that use of technology can produce a much safer workplace, then we need to encourage that,” he said. “This accident led me to believe that a review of technology is important to do.”
In Appalachian mining, the latest technology isn't really new, said D.J. Peterson, a spokesman for RAND Corp., a California-based organization that monitors science and technology trends. Peterson said a review of Appalachian mining practices found that digging coal in the region is largely unchanged from the way it was done 50 years ago.
One exception to that is the use of remote controls on the toothy machines that actually chew coal loose to be transported outside. That allows the machine operators to stand a safe distance away, but not all mines have that technology.
Bill Caylor, president of the Lexington-based Kentucky Coal Association, acknowledged Thursday that tough economic times have made it difficult for some mine operators to update equipment.
“We were putting Band-Aids on equipment, and just trying to stay in business,” Caylor said. “Money just was not available. Companies were doing rebuilds, fixing what they had, because they just didn't have the money to go and get new equipment.”
That means many of the same roof-bolting machines designed in the 1970s still are in use, he said.
Peterson said the price of coal in recent years has slowed the development of automated mining equipment. He said manufacturing companies can only design and build equipment that coal companies are willing and able to purchase.
Coal prices, which have more than doubled in Appalachia over the past two years, will have to remain high much longer before the market for new technology improves, Peterson said.
“While coal prices have increased and some companies are doing better, the capital investment required for automation is significant and long term,” Peterson said.
Caylor said he welcomes a dialogue on the equipment issue. But he said if a particular piece of equipment was deemed unsafe, inspectors from the Office of Mine Safety and Regulation and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration would not allow it to be used.
“If there is a machine that is so old that its safety features are not up to par, then that's legitimate for consideration,” he said.
Mike Elswick, district supervisor of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing in eastern Kentucky, said many other companies use the same type of roof-bolting machine that Yates was operating. The machine has a hydraulic beam that raises up to support overhead rocks.
“For us to say that failed, we can't say that,” he said. “The investigation is ongoing.”
Steve Luzik, chief of approval and certification for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said mining equipment must have his agency's approval before it can be used in coal mines. That approval can be rescinded, he said, if the equipment no longer meets federal safety standards.
Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Environmental and Public Protection, said state inspectors check equipment to make sure it's in proper working order.
“Even if the equipment is 15 or 20 years old, it can be approved equipment,” York said.
Butch Oldham, safety representative for the United Mine Workers of America, said older equipment is safe as long as it is maintained in proper working order.
“All these fatals and serious accidents show that equipment maintenance has been a problem,” he said.