OURAY – As the Mine Safety and Health Administration continues its investigation into a fatal accident at the Revenue-Virginius Mine that claimed the lives of two miners last November, the mine’s owner/operator is now undergoing additional scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, regarding workplace safety conditions at its warehouse in Ouray.
OSHA inspectors conducted a site inspection of Star Mine Operations’ warehouse facility at 1900 Main Street in Ouray on Dec. 18, following a referral from a confidential source. The inspection resulted in a number of workplace hazard citations being issued on Jan. 24, regarding improper storage of flammable chemicals, failure to provide an eyewash station for employees dealing with corrosive materials, and a handful of other less serious violations.
The first citation asserts that “On or about Dec. 18, 2013, and at times prior, employees were exposed to fire hazards because at least 550 gallons of flammable liquids such as Methyl Isobutyl Carbinol [a nontoxic foaming agent used in the flotation milling process] were stored outside of an approved fire cabinet or inside a storage room and were not separated from other buildings or facilities by a standard firewall.”
The second citation asserts that employees were also exposed to eye injuries while handling corrosive chemicals such as Flottec 534 Collector [another chemical used in the milling process], hydrated lime, copper sulfate and sodium hydroxide [commonly known as lye] without access to a suitable eyewash facility in the immediate area.
Both of these are serious violations that carry a combined monetary penalty of close to $6,000, said OSHA area inspector David Nelson.
OSHA inspectors also cited Star Mine Operations for three additional “other-than-serious” violations for which the mine operator will not be fined, including inadequately marked exits, failure to conduct a workplace hazard assessment, and failure to have a written hazardous communication program for employees at the mine warehouse “who were handling a variety of chemicals including lubes, cleaners and mining process chemicals,”according to the citation.
Together, the citations paint a picture of a workplace environment that was not adhering to standard industrial safety protocols, Nelson said.
Star Mine Operations has 15 days from the date of the receipt of the five citations to contest them or set up a conference with OSHA authorities to discuss the case. SMO operations manager and co-owner Rory Williams did not respond to requests from The Watch to comment on the citations.
MSHA ORDERS AND CITATIONS CONTINUE TO PILE UP
Meanwhile, MSHA’s documentation of its investigation into the fatalities of miners Rick Williams and Nick Cappanno from carbon monoxide poisoning on the morning of Nov. 17 a mile and a half inside the Revenue-Virginius Mine reveals that the federal investigators have now issued a total of 131 orders and citations as a result of onsite inspections.
These are widely classified into two categories. The majority fall within the 104(a) class of violations – which are evaluated according to a lower degree of negligence.
However, records show that a total of 49 orders and one citation issued by MSHA so far fall within the more serious 104(d)(1) class of violations, signifying a higher degree of negligence on the part of the mine operator and an “unwarrantable failure to comply” with MSHA safety regulations. Such violations “could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a safety or health hazard,” according to the MSHA Citation and Order Writing Handbook.
The initial citation that triggered the 104(d)(1) series was issued on Dec. 5, and pertained to the MSHA regulation mandating that self-rescue devices must meet the requirements of industry standards “shall be worn or carried by all persons underground.”
Additional 104(d)(1) orders that have followed in this citation’s wake have pertained, among other things, to ventilation plan map requirements, oxygen deficiency testing and monitoring for gas and fumes, safe access, and the proper examination of working places by a competent person designated by the operator “at least once each shift for conditions which may adversely affect safety or health.”
MSHA online records also show that 76 of the orders and citations MSHA has issued thus far were designated as “Significant and Substantial”, indicating a reasonable likelihood the associated hazard could result in an injury or illness of a reasonably serious nature.
One of these “S&S” citations, issued on Jan. 7, pertained to the regulation that “intoxicating beverages and narcotics shall not be permitted or used in or around mines” and that “persons under the influence of alcohol or narcotics shall not be permitted on the job.”
Among the other orders and citations that particularly stand out, MSHA investigators issued a pair of orders on Dec. 10 with the Section 104(g)(1) classification, mandating the withdrawal of untrained miners from the mine until they have received adequate training.
IN HOT WATER?
All of these various classifications of orders and citations may be confusing to a lay person, but to retired MSHA inspector and Silverton resident Ron Renowden who has been closely following the investigation, it all adds up to one thing. “They are in hot water, big time,” he said on Tuesday this week.
Out of all the citations and orders that have been issued thus far, the one that raises the most red flags for Renowden was issued on Dec. 19, pertaining to surface fan and mine opening regulations.
The order was relatively benign, compared to many of the more serious alleged violations. But the thing that stood out for Renowden was the fact that it was classified as a 104(d)(2).
“That means MSHA came on a subsequent inspection after the initial (d)(1) orders were issued, and during that time period found another violation of unwarrantable nature,” he explained. “It specifies that the company is locked into an unwarrantable pattern. The only way they would get off would be to go through a clean inspection of the entire mine.”
Which, he said, is extremely difficult under the best of circumstances.
“In my years in MSHA, except for the coal mines back East, I have never seen a mine get so many unwarrantable citations,” Renowden said. “It’s really serious. They are in deep trouble with negligence issues.”
Star Mine’s Rory Williams has declined to comment on the ongoing MSHA investigation, but did release a statement on Jan. 21, emphasizing that the mine company has “cooperated with MSHA during its on-site investigation and continues to work with MSHA to resume mining operations.”
The statement, issued jointly by Rory Williams and his father James Williams who co-owns the Revenue-Virginius property, indicates that SMO is reviewing the alleged violations, and plans to pursue a legal process to adjudicate them.
“We have poured our heart and soul into the Mine since we re-opened it in 2011,” the statement concludes. “We are deeply saddened at the loss of life. We were proud to have Nick and Rick as part of the Mine team. Our hope is that sometime soon the Mine will return to operations and our people will have the chance to return to work. Star Mine continues to extend its thoughts and prayers to the families of the deceased miners.”
A silver and gold mine dating from the 1880s, the Revenue-Virginius Mine was acquired by Star Mine Operations in 2011 with the goal of stabilizing and modernizing the property and eventually bringing the mine back into production. When last November’s fatal accident occurred, SMO had a total of 103 employees, including 64 underground workers, 36 mill and prep workers and three others.
Local sources report that many of these workers have since been furloughed, but Williams has not confirmed that this is the case.
Although underground operations are still at a standstill pending the outcome of MSHA’s fatality investigation, work has continued on mill construction at the mine. “It is not running at this time,” Williams said. “We are getting close, but not running yet.”
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