Deaths of 2 Kentucky workers demolishing coal-prep plant bring $31,500 fine for safety violations

The coal preparation plant was photographed from the air on Nov. 1, 2023, the day after its collapse. Louisville Emergency Management took the photo via a drone. (Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet records)

On a cool evening in late October, David Peyton heard a pop then a warning scream to get out. Within seconds two men were trapped under 11 stories of steel and concrete.

Peyton ran to where Alvin Nees and Billy Joe “Bo” Daniels were trapped in the collapsed Pontiki/Excel coal preparation plant in Martin County. He talked with the men but lost contact with Nees after a half hour, maybe a little longer.

 Alvin Nees (Photo from obituary)
Alvin Nees (Photo from obituary)

Peyton, a subcontractor on the project to demolish the plant, told state investigators that he had refused to do the demolition himself because of his concerns about the plant’s decades-old condition. That’s according to a report by state workplace safety officers and released to the Lantern through an open records request. 

Emergency responders from across Kentucky worked for several days in a dangerous but ultimately futile attempt to rescue Nees and Daniels. Both men died from their injuries, a loss that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear in early November called a “heartbreaking situation.” 

A months-long investigation by the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet found that it was a situation that might have been averted had federally-required safety precautions been followed. 

The investigation found multiple safety violations that preceded the collapse, including: 

 Billy Joe “Bo” Daniels (Photo from obituary)
Billy Joe “Bo” Daniels (Photo from obituary)
  • Not having an engineering survey and plan before demolition.

  • Not bracing corroded load-bearing steel columns or ensuring the columns were not “overstressed” before using welding torches to cut into them.

  • Not having someone certified in first aid on site.

  • Not informing Nees and Daniels of the hazardous conditions involved with the demolition.

The cabinet on April 30 fined Skeens Enterprises, the primary contractor charged with demolishing and scrapping the plant, $31,500 for five violations that preceded the deaths of Nees and Daniels.

A voicemail and text message to Peyton from the Lantern asking about the state report were not returned. Attempts to reach Stanley Skeens, the CEO of Skeens Enterprises, or a representative of Skeens Enterprises were not successful.  

What state and federal officials found

The Lexington Coal Co., a prominent mining operator with a history of environmental compliance issues, holds the state permit to reclaim the site of the coal preparation plant, which had been operated by Alliance Resource Partners until it was closed and sold in 2014. 

Lexington Coal Co. is led by Jeremy Hoops, the son of Jeff Hoops whose bankrupt coal company, Blackjewel, in 2019 withheld final paychecks from employees who then blocked a coal train for two months. Jeff Hoops was Blackjewel’s CEO and president.

Lexington Coal Company contracted with Pike County-based Skeens Enterprises to demolish and salvage the plant. Skeens Enterprises then subcontracted with Tennessee-based Bordeau Metals, LLC to help with the demolition including with the loading and transportation of metal. Bordeau Metals, led by Brad Bordeau, then subcontracted with Peyton’s McLean County-based company Ace Welding and Fabrication to conduct the demolition of the plant. 

 State workplace safety inspectors made note of the corroded steel in the coal preparation plant. (Public Records)
State workplace safety inspectors made note of the corroded steel in the coal preparation plant. (Public Records)

State workplace safety officials noted in their report that Lexington Coal Company required in its contract with Skeens Enterprises that the contractor get permission before subcontracting the demolition work. Lexington Coal Company was unaware that subcontractors had been brought on or that demolition work had begun in late October, according to the state report. State officials investigated Lexington Coal Company separately after the collapse but didn’t issue the company any citations. 

Peyton, head of the welding company, had his doubts about the demolition project going back to September 2023.

Peyton told Skeens in September he wasn’t comfortable demolishing the plant due to its condition. The steel of the idled preparation plant had been widely corroded. State inspectors later attributed the corrosion to decades of exposure to chemicals used and coal ash created by crushing and removing excess rock from the mined coal. 

Skeens persisted in keeping Peyton on the project; the two agreed that month that Peyton would move forward with his work if Skeens “could get the building on the ground.” 

But in late October, Peyton told Brad Bordeau, the other subcontractor, he wasn’t going to go forward with his part in the demolition project. Bordeau then decided to bring in a Louisville company specializing in demolitions to look at the structure. Bordeau informed Skeens and Peyton he was bringing in the Louisville company.

Skeens, the primary contractor, had another idea. He reached out to Bo Daniels and Alvin Nees, unbeknownst to Bordeau. Daniels had worked with Skeens before but not on a demolition project, according to the state report, and Skeens had demolished around a dozen coal preparation plants before tackling the project. 

Skeens asked Peyton if Nees and Daniels could use Peyton’s welding torches and equipment, which Peyton provided them, along with protective gear. Peyton also taught Nees and Daniels how to use the torches. On the day of the demolition, Oct. 31, 2023, Nees and Daniels began cutting two-foot notches out of the steel columns at the base of the plant. 

It was Skeens’ screaming that Peyton heard when the plant began to collapse, according to the state report. Skeens felt sick following the collapse and was taken to the hospital.

State officers didn’t find any evidence of an engineer conducting a survey before the demolition was done as required by federal regulations. Nor was there someone certified with first aid at the plant site, also required by federal regulations, though Skeens had a first aid certification that had expired in 2008. Skeens told state officers he didn’t advise Daniels on how to drop the building other than to have it fall to the east. Daniels and Nees were supposed to be paid $5,000 for their work. 

That same day, Bordeau had brought in Jon Davies, the president of Louisville-based Complete Demolition Services, to price the demolition of the plant. State officers write Skeens said Davies told him at the plant site the demolition process Nees and Daniels were undertaking “looked good.” But when state officers interviewed Davies, he told them the demolition process was “not how he would do it” and that he requested to get away from the building. 

A federal engineering report stated that while using welding torches isn’t uncommon with a demolition, the cuts made into load-bearing steel columns on the ground floor of the plant posed a “serious risk to the structural integrity of the building.” One of the columns that had been cut into by the torches had a calculated load of 56,000 pounds, or the equivalent of more than a dozen large SUVs. 

That column was overstressed and “in a precarious state even before the collapse transpired,” Alan Lu with the federal Office of Engineering Services wrote. “Field investigations further reveal that some columns in the eastern section of the building were subjected to torch cuts resulting in the complete loss of their load bearing capacity.” 

“The inadequate demolition procedures ultimately culminated in the premature and catastrophic collapse of the building during demolition operations,” Lu wrote. 

Rescuers from around the state worked for more than two days, using dogs, listening devices and cameras to search the unstable debris. The county sheriff told the Mountain Citizen of Inez that responders crawled under tons of steel and concrete that was “snapping and popping” and at one point attempted to free Daniels by surgically amputating his leg. 

The two men were remembered last year by their families and loved ones as “a great father”  and “a great person.”

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