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Bridger Coal

A surface dragline is shown at work at the Jim Bridger Coal Mine in Sweetwater County in this undated photo.

File, Star-Tribune

Miners at the Jim Bridger underground coal mine told federal regulators that large slabs of coal had fallen from the wall in the days before Jaime Olivas died from internal injuries sustained after being buried under a rolled slab of coal.

Those comments were among a number of details that were were not included in a state report about the incident published in February. State and federal inspectors performed a joint investigation into Olivas’ death that included company and union representatives. The federal report was released this week.

“To me, Bridger did everything right,” State Mine Inspector, Terry Adcock, said in February, explaining that an incident like this had not happened before.

Adcock said in an interview Wednesday that he did not personally recall interviews that noted earlier rib falls. He also said details of prior rib falls would have needed to be specific and verified to warrant putting in the state report.

“I can’t speak for the MSHA folks,” he said. “I have to be able to prove and document everything that I put in [the state report].”

Violation

Much of the federal report mirrors the results of the state investigation but it contains more details gleaned from miner interviews, including that three miners told investigators that large slabs of coal had rolled in the area. One miner noted that coal had fallen three days before.

The incident, which occurred while removing longwall equipment, could have been prevented by using greater safety measures to protect miners in a similar situation, federal regulators concluded. The company submitted moderate changes to their existing roof and wall safety protocol. Removal of longwall equipment will now require a site-specific plan for securing the roof and walls, such as securing the wall face with mesh to prevent coal rolls when removing longwall equipment.

Federal regulators also cited the company for not reporting the incident within 15 minutes.

More background

The federal report also includes additional details of the events of Sept. 28.

It reads that Olivas, 39, was standing between 8 and 10 feet from the coal face that afternoon. The foreman had recently affirmed that the area was clear of hazards and noted that air and gas measurements were normal.

Olivas was using a pole to untangle a mesh covering being bolted into the roof to protect workers from falling rock. Mining in the area was complete, and Olivas, a 10-year underground mining veteran, was assisting in the process of extracting longwall mining equipment from the area.

A small chunk of coal, about 2 feet-by-2 feet, fell from the wall and Olivas began backing away from the face, according to the report from Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Then, a large slab of coal broke free from the coal face, completely covering Olivas.

The state report noted that there had been no sign of an impending coal roll, which can reveal itself in popping sounds or visible cracks and fissures in the face.

Three of Olivas’ fellow miners uncovered Olivas, according to the federal report. He complained of pain in his back, shoulder and arm. Two more miners arrived. The five men carried Olivas by stretcher to a nearby crossroads in the mine to await an underground ambulance.

Olivas was then taken to the surface, and transferred to a highway ambulance. The highway ambulance left the mine site at 3:12 p.m., 42 minutes after the underground ambulance was dispatched to retrieve Olivas from the scene of the accident.

An emergency medical technician checked Olivas’ pulse in the ambulance, but found none. The EMT began CPR. He also used a defibrillator, which can a shock a heart that is spasming towards cardiac arrest in order to restore natural rhythm. The defibrillator did not advise a shock.

Paramedics from Sweetwater County were called to assist and the company ambulance met county medics at an exit off Interstate 80.

About 40 minutes later, medics contacted an Emergency Room physician who pronounced the miner dead.

Company officials noted in earlier interviews that they had not called in a helicopter to transport Olivas to the nearby hospital because it could take longer. They did not immediately suspect life-threatening injuries, because Olivas was conscious and talking after the incident.

The federal report found that Olivas was well-trained for his position. He had worked at the underground mine since 2008 and began working on the longwall in 2014.

He was the only coal miner to die on the job in Wyoming in 2017.

A representative from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers declined to comment on the report. A representative for Rocky Mountain Power, the subsidiary of Pacifcorp that operates the mine, said the company was evaluating the federal citation and penalty.

“Bridger Coal Company is always working to improve employee safety and the operations at the mine and will continue to take measures to ensure the safety of employees,” said spokesman David Eskelsen.

Bridger is the sole underground coal mine operating in Wyoming. It employs 218 people. The mine is owned in part by PacifiCorp, a large western utility. The coal feeds the nearby Jim Bridger power plant, which is also owned by PacifiCorp.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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