Feds: Company didn’t fix unsafe condition at Kentucky coal mine before fatal accident

·3 min read

An accident that killed an employee at an Eastern Kentucky surface mine in January happened because the operator didn’t fix an unsafe condition or properly inspect for hazards, according to a federal report.

Cecil Todd Collett, 32, of Pennington Gap, Va., died when a tree weighing more than 6,000 pounds fell on the pickup truck he was driving at the mine in Bell County, according to a report from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

A passenger in the truck, 45-year-old Joshua Pendleton of Ewing, Va., was seriously injured.

The tree fell from the top of a highwall at the Colmar mine, owned and operated by Nally & Hamilton Enterprises.

A highwall is a cliff created by blasting and digging into the side of a hill to uncover coal.

The approved plan for the mine called for clearing trees at the top of the highwall a safe distance back from the edge, but the company hadn’t made sure that was done, according to MSHA’s investigation of the accident.

A total of five trees, including the one that fell, hadn’t been cut back a safe distance from the top of the highwall at the accident site, which was on a road near the wall, the report said.

MSHA investigators said the tree had been a hazard since the area near it was mined in August 2021.

Federal law requires mine operators to do inspections to check for possible hazardous conditions, but the examinations at the Nally & Hamilton mine were inadequate and contributed to the accident, MSHA concluded.

The report said weather conditions also likely played a role. There was heavy rain a little over a week earlier, followed by a temperature swing from 76 degrees to 20 degrees in a few days, and then eight inches of snow the day before the accident.

The precipitation and cycles of freezing and thawing caused wet, muddy conditions that loosened support for the tree. Mud and rock continued falling from the highwall even as investigators were at the site, the report said.

Collett had about 10 years’ experience. His regular duties included loading and detonating explosives.

Collett was driving to pick up supplies when the 80-foot tall tree fell on the truck. The highwall was about 50 feet tall at that site, according to a diagram in the report.

A worker was killed in Janaury at a surface mine in Eastern Kentucky when a large tree fell on the truck he was driving.
A worker was killed in Janaury at a surface mine in Eastern Kentucky when a large tree fell on the truck he was driving.

Two other mine employees rushed to the truck and tried to use metal pry bars to force open the truck doors and free Collett and Pendleton, but couldn’t.

A foreman had the workers use a front-end loader to move the tree off the truck. Pendleton was conscious when they finally got the doors open, but Collett had no pulse, according to the report.

A deputy coroner pronounced him dead at the Appalachian Regional Hospital in Middlesboro.

MSHA cited Nally & Hamilton for not following the plan that required removing the trees atop the highwall and for failing to identify, report and correct the hazardous situation.

The violations each constituted an unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory safety standard, MSHA said.

Collett, a native of Leslie County, was survived by his wife, Ashley Stidham Collett, as well as five children and other relatives, according to his obituary.

The Kentucky Division of Mine Safety investigated the accident with MSHA.

There have been two fatal coal-mining accidents in Kentucky this year. In addition to Collett’s death, James D. Brown, 33, who operated a roof-bolting machine, died on March 20 in Harlan County when a section of the roof fell on him at INMET Mining’s D-29 Darby Fork underground mine.

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