updated 3/26/2007 8:44:56 PM ET 2007-03-27T00:44:56

Federal investigators found “flagrant violations” at a Pennsylvania mine where a worker died in a methane gas explosion last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report released Monday.

R&D Coal Co. lacked adequate ventilation, safe blasting practices and proper pre-shift safety checks at its Buck Mountain Slope Mine in Schuylkill County, directly contributing to the Oct. 23 death of veteran miner Dale Reightler, 43, federal mine safety officials said.

The miners conducting the blasting that day were not qualified to handle explosives, and set them off before miners could get to a safe area, investigators found.

R&D became the first operator cited for flagrant violations under new federal mine-safety rules that boost fines to as much as $220,000. Congress approved the harsher fines last year after a spate of mine fatalities, including the deaths of 12 men at West Virginia’s Sago mine.

“R&D Coal Co. Inc. failed to observe basic mine safety practices and violated critical safety standards. As a result, a miner tragically lost his life,” said Richard E. Stickler, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

Reightler’s widow, Dorothy, said Monday that she was angry that no serious violations had been found in inspections while her husband was still alive.

“If they found all these violations, how come all their previous inspections found none?” Dorothy Reightler said. “The state was supposed to be there every 60 days to do their inspections.”

22 state violations
State regulators have revoked R&D’s permit to operate the Buck Mountain site in Tremont Township, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. They found 22 state violations and said the company’s alleged cover-up of a similar 2004 blast might have contributed to Reightler’s death.

His death marked the first fatality in an underground Pennsylvania anthracite mine in more than eight years.

A listed phone number for the company was not in operation Monday, and R&D officers did not immediately return messages left at their homes.

Reightler, a married father of four from Donaldson, had worked underground for a quarter-century and dreamed of opening an auto repair shop and building race cars. However, in a 2000 interview with The Morning Call of Allentown, he had described the lure of coal mining.

“It’s in the blood,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better job once you got it in you.”

On Dec. 1, 2004, four workers at the same mine were injured by what company officials had claimed was flying debris and coal from an explosion caused by a pipe with a faulty gauge. R&D was allowed to reopen later that month after installing safety equipment.

However, following Reightler’s death, DEP investigators took another look at the 2004 case and concluded the accident was caused by a methane explosion and that R&D officials had lied to state regulators.

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