Alabama coal company sued for a home explosion is delinquent on dozens of penalties

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The grave of W.M. Griffice in the Oak Grove community of Jefferson County. Griffice died from injuries he suffered in a home explosion on March 8.

Lee Hedgepeth, Inside Climate News

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here

By Lee Hedgepeth and James Bruggers, Inside Climate News

OAK GROVE, Ala.—Clara Riley thought she was having a heart attack. 

As an Alabama mine has slowly approached the coal seam under her home, Riley’s anxiety has sometimes gotten the best of her. In late April, after a mine representative visited her home, the 90-year-old said she broke down. She could feel the weight of it all on her chest. 

Just a month prior, on March 8, an explosion critically injured two of her neighbors. One, W.M. Griffice, would later die from his wounds. His family would soon sue Crimson Oak Grove Resources, the company that operates the mine, alleging that its negligence led to the methane gas explosion.

After meeting with a mine representative about her concerns stemming from that tragedy, Riley said it was hard to breathe. 

“I had a panic attack that night from the whole crazy day,” she said.

Federal and state records demonstrate that the company has engaged in significant, repeated noncompliance with safety standards, leading to hundreds of citations by regulators. An Inside Climate News analysis of federal records also shows that the mine is delinquent on dozens of penalties levied by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The delinquent penalties include fines for more than a dozen “significant and substantial” safety violations ranging in amount from $772 to $17,469. Since the March 8 explosion, MSHA inspectors have cited Oak Grove Mine a total of 204 times for safety violations. MSHA recently revealed that a March 20 inspection—12 days after the blast—produced 39 citations, 18 of which are considered to be among the most serious that the agency can issue. Those are called “significant and substantial” violations, or ones that are “reasonably likely to result in a serious injury or illness.”

In all, Oak Grove was fined $972,112 last year and $747,724 the year before, MSHA records show. 

Riley is among hundreds of residents whose community is located atop the expanding Oak Grove Mine, the operation at the heart of the Griffice family’s lawsuit. 

Crimson Oak Grove Resources has argued in court documents that as long as the company was in “substantial compliance” with permitting requirements at the time of the explosion, any damages would be limited by Alabama law. 

W.M. Griffice’s home exploded on March 8. (Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News)

Elected official downplays mining impacts

At the Jefferson County operation, the company extracts high-quality, expensive metallurgical coal, used to produce steel, by a method known as longwall mining, a practice used at 31 mines in nine states, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Longwall mining employs bladed machines to shear coal from expanses as wide as 1,000 feet, hauling coal out of an area that can extend well over a mile. The rock ceiling, called “overburden,” then collapses behind the cutting tool, which can cause land surfaces above to sink and release dangerous methane.

Since the March 8 home explosion in Adger, located in western Jefferson County, officials at both the federal and state levels have avoided drawing any direct connection between the mine and the fatal explosion.

Jefferson County Commission President James A. (Jimmie) Stephens, whose district includes the Adger and Oak Grove communities, said he was unaware of any residents’ concerns about the mining operation until he read about them in an Inside Climate News report on April 25.

The commission, among other responsibilities, oversees the emergency management and health departments in the area.

Stephens said he’d ask the health department to check out any concerns about water wells, but he also expressed a measure of disbelief. 

“I just read your article and there is no one from the community that has contacted this office” about being affected by mining activity, Stephens said. “I do have good connections with the schools and the community,” he said. “If it were indeed a serious problem, I would have been right in the middle of it. I have received plenty of garbage complaints.”

Clara Riley said if Stephens hasn’t heard from residents, that’s on him. Finding a public official who’s in the right position to do something and is willing to help can be a difficult task, Riley said, and those in positions of power have a responsibility to do more to learn what’s happening on the ground in the communities they represent. 

“That makes me think he’s not doing his job,” Riley said. “He doesn’t care about the little people.”

Regulators refuse interview requests

Regulators, too, have been reticent to speak about the home explosion in explicit terms. 

In April, Kathy Love, director of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, expressed skepticism that the explosion could have been caused by mining activity given the depth at which mining takes place but said her opinion was based on her experience, not on any particular information about the Oak Grove tragedy. 

“So it just blows my mind,” Love said. “It’s very unusual.”

Love said only three formal complaints have been filed against the mine in the last 10 years, but she would not provide copies of those complaints, citing privacy concerns related to property owners’ personal information. All three complaints, Love said, were related to damage from subsidence potentially caused by the Oak Grove Mine. 

State regulatory records show that the mine has been cited by state officials multiple times, though far less often than by federal regulators, including in 2022 for mining outside of permitted and bonded areas.

Lawyers for the Griffice family blame the March blast on methane that leaked into the home after the company that operates the mine, Crimson Oak Grove Resources, capped the Griffice home’s water well. 

Methane, a significant greenhouse gas, is released as part of the longwall mining process. The colorless, odorless gas can then make its way to the surface above the mine through cracks and crevices, becoming an explosive hazard. 

Independent mine safety experts have told Inside Climate News that capping water wells atop coal mines to block leaking methane is unwise because methane will just find other pathways to the surface. Controlled venting is a better option, they said. Sometimes, methane leaks cannot be safely controlled and people need to leave their homes, according to experts.

The two federal agencies that regulate coal mining in the United States have declined all interview requests since the Griffice home atop the Oak Grove Mine exploded on March 8.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), part of the Interior Department, has jurisdiction over surface impacts from mining, including those caused by surface subsidence from underground mining. An OSMRE spokesperson said in an email that the federal agency’s role in Alabama is one of “oversight,” and referred questions to the Alabama Surface Mining Commission and a state fire marshal’s office, which have been investigating the blast.

“Bill Joseph, OSMRE regional director, recently spoke with Kathy Love, director of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, regarding the status of the explosion and fire marshal investigation. Currently, there are no findings,” the OSMRE representative said.

MSHA, part of the Department of Labor, has authority for safety issues inside the mine as well as at mine facilities on the surface, an MSHA spokesperson said in an email.

Underground, federal inspectors found conditions that could cause a fire or explosion hazard and impede minersʼ escape in case of an emergency, including the accumulation of combustible materials and damage to part of the mine’s ventilation system, according to an MSHA press release. Inspectors also found the mine was not following its approved roof control plan, which exposed miners to the threat of falling rock from the mineʼs roof and sides.

MSHA did not mention the blast in their press release. Instead, it said the inspection was triggered by an elevated number of citations the previous three months, along with “numerous hazard complaints” from mine employees.

Through the Department of Labor, the agency subsequently provided a written response to several written questions that largely recited various federal regulations. In response to a question about what it was doing to keep miners and the public safe, it cited the March inspection.

“MSHA inspectors issue citations or orders when they have reason to believe violations exist,” according to the statement. “All issuances are assessed civil penalties according to MSHA’s standards, regulations and policies.”

When asked whether the mine was a safe workplace or whether it should be shut down, the agency did not say. Instead, the agency said it works with mine operators to correct problems using the enforcement tools provided by Congress. It acknowledged it has the authority to “withdraw miners” from unsafe areas of a mine “if hazardous conditions exist where miners are in immediate danger.”

A new analysis of federal safety records by Inside Climate News also shows that Crimson Oak Grove Resources is listed as “delinquent” on 29 penalties assessed by MSHA for safety violations.

Crimson Oak Grove Resources, which operates the mine being sued by Griffice and Hill, has a long history of safety violations, according to state and federal records. (Lee Hedgepeth/Inside Climate News)

Mine, union say violations are the norm

The frequency and severity of the violations at Oak Grove are not abnormal, according to Erin Bates, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, which represents miners at the Oak Grove Mine. The union recently secured raises for the company’s mine workers. 

The union’s safety committee and staff “are deeply committed to maximizing safety at the mine” and work to “promptly address and rectify” safety concerns there, Bates said.

But Bates also said the Oak Grove Mine’s violations are “not above average” and that the mine is “nowhere close” to being labeled by MSHA as a mine with a “pattern of violations.” Such a designation could prompt MSHA to order miners away from dangerous areas until violations are abated, according to the MSHA website.

The union announced last week that its Local Unions 2133 and 8982 ratified a new collective bargaining agreement at the Oak Grove mine and the Concord Preparation Plant, both in Jefferson County and operated by Crimson Oak Grove Resources, with 64.4 percent support from the membership.

The five-year agreement includes wage increases and improvements in paid time off, with no changes to health care or other benefits, according to the union.

Bates’ characterization of violations as typical occurrences echoed that of Kristie Baggett, the Oak Grove mine representative who’d visited the Riley home. 

“Every mine gets cited daily for random things. The other day they got cited because they weren’t wearing the right eye gear,” Baggett told the Rileys. “He had just set his goggles down.”

Jack Spadaro, a former top federal mine safety engineer who works as a consultant for coalfield residents, workers and their lawyers, said Oak Grove’s history of violations show a disregard for safety. 

“It sounds like a very unsafe mine, if they have penalties that high,” Spadaro said.

Federal regulators, he argued, haven’t done enough to regulate mines like Oak Grove for decades. When they do, the penalties aren’t enough to change bad behavior, which eventually becomes the norm. 

“If a mine, in a period of a few months, is getting more than 200 citations and 68 are significant and substantial under the regulations, the failure by the federal government and the state—as well as by the United Mine Workers—is disgraceful,” Spadaro said. “They’re allowing their members to be put at risk of injury or death and are showing no concern about the people on the surface, including a grandfather who was killed and a grandson who was seriously injured. It’s disgraceful.”

Meanwhile, Oak Grove’s lawyers have been busy in federal court, appealing the forced reinstatement of a miner who had allegedly complained about safety issues before being dismissed by Oak Grove. In that suit, lawyers for Oak Grove are challenging the federal mine regulatory scheme, arguing that the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission rules “did not provide operators … with due process.”

Neither Crimson Oak Grove Resources nor its parent company, Ohio-based American Consolidated Natural Resources, Inc., has responded to requests for comment. When an Inside Climate News reporter arrived at Riley’s house to ask questions about potential risks to residents, Baggett, the mine company representative, fled the home. 

“I wasn’t aware you were going to be here,” she said. “So I’m going to have to take my exit.” 

Residents like Clara Riley said that they feel the mining company is keeping them in the dark. And all the while, Riley said, public officials like Stephens are busy blaming residents for not speaking out loud enough.

“How would he like this going on under him?”

 

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