MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration on Thursday designated two West Virginia coal mines and one in Kentucky as pattern violators, meaning they've repeatedly broken federal health and safety regulations over the past year.
One is Pocahontas Coal Co.'s Affinity Mine in Raleigh County, where two men died within two weeks of each other in February. General Counsel Mark McCormick said Affinity's parent company, Tennessee-based United Coal, disputes both the label and the grounds for it.
The others mines are Brody Mining's Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, W.Va., and Tram Energy's Mine No. 1 in Floyd County, Ky.
They're the first mines added to the list since MSHA began using revised screening criteria that went into effect in March, but MSHA director Joe Maid said others could be added.
When a mine is put on the Pattern of Violations, or POV, list it is subject to a higher level of scrutiny. The designation is one of MSHA's toughest enforcement actions, reserved for operations that pose the greatest threat to workers' lives. It also puts more responsibility on the operator to identify and correct safety problems.
Now, if a federal inspector writes a citation for a significant and substantial violation at any of the three mines, an order will be issued to withdraw workers and cease operations.
In all, MSHA reviewed 14,600 U.S. mines during the past 12 months, identifying nine operators as potential pattern violators. Ultimately, only three made the POV list. Main said that shows the review process is working.
"Many operators are cleaning up their acts, even when MSHA is not looking over their shoulders," he said.
Main said Affinity was cited for 124 serious violations during the review period, one-fourth of which involved "high negligence or reckless disregard for the health and safety of miners."
Affinity also got 35 closure orders, third-most in the U.S.
Edward Finney of Bluefield, Va., died Feb. 7 at the Affinity Mine when he was pinned under a hoist he'd been moving trash into. Hoists are used to move miners, equipment and supplies between the surface and the underground operation.
Miner John Myles of Hilltop was crushed by a scoop at the same mine on Feb. 19.
Federal records show MSHA had cited thee Affinity mine for some 65 violations between January and the February fatalities, for everything from failure to maintain mine and escapeway maps to allowing combustible materials to accumulate.
In March 2012, MSHA also listed the Affinity mine among three that had been caught giving illegal, advance warning that inspectors were onsite the month before.
Affinity is challenging the high-negligence citations. Though they have yet to be adjudicated, McCormick said, MSHA is using them as one of the criteria to take enforcement action — a practice the National Mining Association is challenging in court.
"We're very committed to running a safe operation," McCormick said, adding that United gave MSHA a lengthy letter explaining its improvements at the Affinity Mine. Those include the voluntary installation of proximity detectors, devices that automatically shut down equipment when a person is too close.
"It's been more than 100 days since we had a lost-time injury at the mine," McCormick said, "and we believe that's attributable to a number of safety initiatives, including proximity detection. ... We thought it was the right thing to do to protect our employees."
Patriot said in a statement that it believes the Brody mine does not qualify for POV status, and the company intends to vigorously contest the finding.
Patriot acquired Brody Mining in December 2012 and since then, the mine "has made considerable and measurable progress toward improved safety and compliance," the statement said.
Although the ability to designate pattern violators has been on the books since 1977, Main said it wasn't used until 2010, after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia.
That year, MSHA identified 53 mines for review, labeled 17 potential violators and put two on the POV list.
In 2011, MSHA screened 39 mines and put eight on the POV list.
Last year, MSHA looked at 20 mines and issued four potential pattern violator notices.
The fact that fewer mines are being identified as problematic "clearly is indicating that we're reducing the number of chronic violators," Main said. "We believe this process is working to make mines safer."
Tram Energy's mine was cited for 120 serious violations during the review period, more than half of which involved operator negligence, MSHA said. The agency shut down the mine 40 times during the year.
Tram Energy has been fined more than $170,000 since 2012; all but $666 of that remains unpaid, MSHA said.
Tram Energy has no phone listing, and the number for its controller, Jason D. Ousley, has been disconnected.
Brody Mining, a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal, received 253 serious violations during the review period.
MSHA found that worker injuries translated to 1,757 lost work days at the mine — 367 of which were from eight injuries the company failed to report.
Patriot spokeswoman Janine Orf didn't immediately comment.