The indictment charges Ira Sergent, 56, of Cumberland; Johnny Osborne, 51, of Evarts; and Reggie Raleigh, 37, of Bledsoe, with two counts each of violating the federal Mine Safety Act. The charges against the men stem from a surprise inspection at Stillhouse No. 1 Mine near Cumberland on Dec. 3, 2006.
One charge alleges that the foremen turned off or authorized a main mine fan to be turned off while miners were working inside the mine.
“This is an extremely dangerous thing to do. Miners rely on the ventilation fan to sweep away poisonous gases and coal dust. That is the purpose of it,” said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington-based mine-safety attorney and federal and state mining official, regarding the charge. “The point of the fan is to provide breathable air.”
Oppegard said the ventilation fan in a mine should only be turned off in emergencies.
“It is never acceptable to intentionally turn of a fan, unless you have a hazardous condition that requires you to turn it off,” he said. “If the fan is off for 15 minutes, under federal law the mine should be evacuated.”
The second count charges the three men of changing the ventilation system without first turning off any electrical power or shutting off any mechanical equipment in the areas of the mine affected by the change.
If the men are convicted on both counts, each faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a warning to the Stillhouse mine in June for what it noted as a pattern of serious violations. The letter stated that, based on a two-year review of citations ending on March 31, the mine had an average of 9.6 significant and substantial safety violations per 100 inspection hours. The national average is 5.35.
Oppegard said safety should have a higher priority in the mine’s operations.
“Stillhouse has had a pretty abysmal safety record,” he said. “One would think they would be paying extra attention to safety, but here we have the opposite.”
Claudia Cole, the widow of one of the two miners who died in the August 2005 accident at the mine, said she hopes the new charges help to bring safer working conditions to the operation.
“It is pretty sad. They had two deaths only a year and a half before, so you would think they would be running the mine safer rather than putting people in harm’s way,” Cole said. “To me it shows that money is more important to them than people’s lives.”