WyoFile Energy Report

Coal miner killed in accident at Wyoming’s Black Thunder mine

— August 16, 2013

A coal miner was killed early Friday morning and another miner was injured at the Black Thunder mine in southern Campbell County.

Killed was Jacob Dowdy, age 24, who had worked at the mine for nearly three years. Injured was 38-year-old Mike Lewis of Wright, according to reports. Lewis’ injuries were not life-threatening, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere told WyoFile the accident involved moving equipment. “… a power shovel was traveling up a ramp and rolled back, striking a pickup truck. One miner in the truck was killed, with another trapped in the truck. The second miner was taken to the hospital, but apparently not seriously injured. MSHA has responded and is launching an investigation.”

Keith Williams, president of Thunder Basin Coal Co., issued this statement: “On behalf of Thunder Basin’s Black Thunder mine, we are saddened to confirm that Jacob Dowdy suffered fatal injuries this morning at approximately 12:30 a.m. Mountain time. Mr. Dowdy, 24, had been an employee of Thunder Basin for nearly three years.

“We wish to extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Dowdy’s family, friends and coworkers at this most difficult time,” Williams continued. “We are profoundly saddened by the loss. The safety of our team members remains our number one priority.”

According to miners familiar with Powder River Basin mining operations, a shovel’s brakes should engage even if power is cut. Vehicles are supposed to maintain a safe distance when following a shovel — particularly when it is traveling up a ramp. Conditions were reportedly dry at the mine at the time of the accident.

In 2009, Arch Coal Inc. acquired the Jacobs Ranch mine, merging it with the neighboring Black Thunder mine to create the single largest coal mining complex in the world. The mine operations include six draglines, 22 shovels and 148 haul trucks, according to Arch’s website. The mine employs approximately 1,550 workers. The Black Thunder complex extracted 104.9 million tons of coal in 2011.

Dowdy’s is the third fatality in Black Thunder’s nearly 40-year history. Rick Richardson, 44, died of injuries from a fall at the mine’s processing plant in February 2003. In February 2002, Allen “Big A” Greger was killed when a highwall sloughed crushing the rubber-tire dozer Greger was operating at the bottom of the pit. Just a month before Greger was killed, miner Les Butts was paralyzed in the same pit when a boulder came off the highwall and smashed a vehicle he was driving in the pit. (Read more about the accidents here.)

Seven years after his debilitating accident, a jury awarded Butts $9.46 million. In a rare legal case, Butts was able sue his supervisors for their role in the accident. The jury found defendants Michael Hannifan and Kevin Hampleman guilty of willful and wanton negligence for placing Butts in harm’s way.

Wyoming’s mining industry has its share of fatalities and injuries, but Wyoming’s next-to-worst in the nation workplace fatality record is mostly outside mining. Read this report to learn more about the state’s struggle to cut workplace fatalities.

UPDATE, AUGUST 29: Click here to read MSHA’s preliminary report on the accident that killed Jacob Dowdy. The report states that the shovel was ascending a 9% grade when it lost power and rolled back, crushing two Ford F350 flatbed utility pickups.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. The family of 26 year old Latrobe, Pennsylvania mine mechanic Steelyn Gary Kanouff, who was reportedly killed on July 31, 2013 while working on a Caterpillar 773E truck in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has barely put their son to rest, and another family, this time in Southern Campbell County, Wyoming, (according to and article by Mr. D Bleizeffer – August 16, 2013, Wyofile) is mourning the loss of their 24 year old son, Jacob Dowdy, who was reportedly killed in a mine related accident on August 16, 2013.
    While I comment on this tragedy, I am mindful, and respectful, of the fact that the authorities are still investigating the cause of the accident and will, sooner or later, publish an official report on their findings.
    However, these accidents are not the first, and they will not be the last, until mine managers, safety personnel, supervisors, OSHA, and MSHA start taking all elements of safety seriously.
    Mr. Kanouff was reportedly killed while troubleshooting a problem on the Caterpillar 773E’s strut. It is my strong opinion (and I stand to be corrected) that Mr. Kanouff was performing work on a system he had little, or no, training in.
    In fact, the mine’s safety director was, in my opinion, extremely disrespectful to Mr. Kanouff, his family, and the community, because, within a few hours of the accident, and while MSHA inspectors were on the ground conducting an official investigation into the cause of the accident, he held a press conference during which he announced that “human error was not the cause of the accident.”

    Get used to it America, safety is, to most companies, an “evil necessity.” As I predicted when I posted my comments on the Latrobe article about Mr. Kanouff’s untimely – and in all probability – preventable death, there will be more.
    To the families of the tens and thousands of mine mechanics that work in the mines throughout America here are some important facts about the work your loved ones do, and the risks they face every day as they work by trial-and-error on hydraulic systems:

    1. Less than 1% of the mines in America teach workers hydraulic safety.
    2. Mechanics throughout America work on large mining machinery every day without the proper training. Less than 5% of the mechanics that work on hydraulic systems are trained in hydraulic safety. The same is true of fundamental hydraulics.
    3. Hydraulics is not a recognized occupational hazard by MSHA or OSHA. Both organizations stand by while tens of thousands of Americans work everyday on hydraulics without any training. Hydraulics is not recognized as an occupational hazard by any institution in America.
    4. Most mines will not train mechanics in hydraulics because it’s “too expensive.”
    5. The safety personnel at mines are not trained to either enforce hydraulic safety, or identify potential safety hazards. They will not allow untrained workers to work on electrical systems, but they won’t do anything about untrained workers working on hydraulic systems.
    6. People who work on hydraulic machinery are the most “at-risk” workers in the America.
    7. Technical schools and colleges in your community – including, according to students, Wyotech – don’t teach students hydraulic safety. Less than 5% of the hydraulic teachers are competent to teach hydraulics.
    8. The manufacturers of the equipment your loved work on provide warnings, in their respective service manuals, about the consequences of releasing stored energy to atmosphere. Most state that it can cause severe injury or death. Ironically, not one of them makes it possible to either determine if there is stored energy in their hydraulic systems after shutdown, or provide a safe means to remove stored energy. This while OSHA and MSHA, in my opinion, look the other way.

    If you have a loved one who work on hydraulic systems of any type they are at risk of suffering debilitating accidents. Discuss the matter with your loved ones, and have them discuss the matter with mine management and safety personnel before it’s too late. Hydraulic systems have the inherent capability of causing severe injury or death. People who work on hydraulic systems without proper training can suffer the following types of injuries:
    1. Severe burn injuries or death.
    2. Severe eye injury or blindness.
    3. Oil injection injuries.
    4. Rotating shaft injuries or death.
    5. Crush injuries or death.
    Stop your loved ones from working on hydraulic systems until they are properly trained. Remember, the only reason why they are not getting the proper training is because it erodes profit. You will hear it first-hand from your loved ones: when the economy slows down, the first expense that goes on the corporate chopping block is the critical training your loved ones need to do their jobs safely.
    “Hydraulic safety doesn’t just happen, it has to be pursued.”

  2. We would like to extend our condolences to the friends and family of Mr. Dowdy as well. Such a tragedy. @Dan, you make a good point. The line of work is inherently dangerous.

  3. Condolences to the family and friends of James Dowdy. This is the realization of the fears of every family that sends their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters off to work around this giant machinery.

    Give Arch Coal some credit for not immediately claiming that the worker was at fault. Looks like there’s plenty to figure out here … was the equipment in good shape? Was the ramp built properly? Were people operating their vehicles at prescribed distances?

    MSHA has an important job to do in this investigation.