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Federal agency’s ruling raises questions for widow and family of late WS miner

It’s been one year since Tonya Aldrich got the call.

Her husband, Rick, had been in an accident while operating a road grader at his job as a mine superintendent at Avery Pit near Wishram and she needed to go to the hospital right away.

When she got there a sense of dread immediately took over.

“They brought us into this room and I just knew right then that something was terribly wrong,” she said.

It was there that she received the news: Rick was dead at age 54. He had died while operating a road grader and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Still in shock from the news, Aldrich scooped up her youngest daughter, Mckenna, who is now 12, and the two young children she was babysitting that day and went home to the small farm the family had spent the last 11 years building in the Snowden area.

“My kids just break down. Mckenna doesn’t know what’s going on. She doesn’t understand what a heart attack is. She doesn’t understand that her dad is dead at this point. I just take everyone home because I don’t know what else to do,” Aldrich said.

Later, she would have to deliver the news to her son, Ryan, now 17, and oldest daughter, M’Randa, now 19.

The Aldrich family has gone through a lot of adjustments over the last year since Rick’s death. Extra jobs have been picked up; work on the farm has been scaled back.

Rick didn’t have a will and the Aldrichs never purchased life insurance. Thankfully the Washing-ton State Department of Labor and Industries pays the family a percentage of the former mine superintendent’s salary.

“That’s how I’m able to stay here and keep the kids in one place and not uproot the family. At least their home is secure,” Tonya Aldrich said.

Be that as it may, recent events have further prevented the family from reaching any type of closure.

MSHA rules miner’s death “not chargeable”

Because Rick Aldrich died on the job at the Pacific Northwest Aggre-gates, Inc. sand and gravel mine known as Avery Pit, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) stepped in to conduct an investigation on the death.

MSHA investigates all fatal incidents in the mining industry and then passes its findings onto the administration’s Fatality Review Committee. That committee determines if the miner’s death can be deemed “chargeable” or “not chargeable” to the mining industry.

In the event that a death is deemed chargeable, the mine in question will be cited with monetary penalties attached to any violations found, according to Amy Louviere, spokesperson from MSHA’s headquarters in Arlington, Va.

But that wasn’t the case for the Aldrich family.

In 2012 there were 16 fatal incidents deemed non-chargeable to the mining industry at metal or non-metal mines reported to MSHA throughout the country, according to a list of incident reports compiled on MSHA’s website.

Of those 16 incidents one was the result of a homicide, two stemmed from suicides, and three occurred due to trespassing on company property. Of the remaining 10 deaths due to natural causes, nine reports from the Fatality Review Committee line up with death certificates and autopsy findings.

The lone outlier is that of Rick Aldrich.

In a report by MSHA dated Sept. 16, the findings of the inspection team for the Fatality Review Committee concluded that the death of Richard Ray Aldrich is not chargeable to the mining industry because he “died due to natural causes” related to heart disease while the autopsy report released by Tonya Aldrich to The Enterprise lists the cause of death as “cardiac effects of electrocution.”

The Fatality Review Committee’s report states that Rick Aldrich’s death certificate indicates that he died from electrocution and acknowledges the findings of the autopsy conducted by Dr. Clifford Nelson, then of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

According to MSHA’s report, representatives from the administration’s Mine Electrical Systems Division visited the site of Rick Aldrich’s death twice to investigate the road grader and surrounding area, but could not find any defects to the batteries or “exposed power lines, cables, or electrical connections on the road grader or any other area checked at the mine site that was capable of electrocuting Mr. Aldrich.”

Louviere stated via email that MSHA’s electrical engineers determined that the total electrical current generated by the road grader was 12 volts.

“This is not sufficient to cause an electrocution (mild or severe),” Louviere wrote in an email to The Enterprise.

But Nelson disagrees with that conclusion. MSHA’s report states that hypertensive heart disease was also a “significant finding” listed within the autopsy report and Rick Aldrich was found to have a slightly enlarged heart and narrowing of some arteries during the autopsy. Nelson asserts that “there’s not even close to enough heart disease there to kill him” and that an electrical shock is the reason Rick Aldrich’s heart was sent into an abnormal rhythm that day.

“There is no reason for him to have died at that place and time unless he was shocked,” Nelson said. “He does have somewhat of an enlarged heart, but there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of men his age that have hearts that large and they’re not dropping dead right and left. Something has to happen before the heart can go into an abnormal rhythm.”

The autopsy report indicates that there were burns found on both of Rick Aldrich’s palms and on much of his left arm. The portion of the autopsy report describing the burns notes that they are “typical of an electric burn.”

MSHA’s report also makes note of the burns on Rick Aldrich’s body as part of the investigation called for the involvement of Dr. Nancy Sahakian, who is listed as senior program management consultant for clinical operations of the Federal Occupational Health Service.

Louviere referred only to the MSHA report when asked questions regarding Sahakian’s role in the investigation. The report states that the investigative team and other MSHA employees shared information with Sahakian, who later offered consultation on the Fatality Review Board’s decision.

The investigators for MSHA noted in the fatality review report that they learned through interviews that Rick Aldrich had been welding for three days at work and concluded that the burns “may have been consistent with welding activity.”

Tonya Aldrich said she has no memory of her husband coming home with any burns in the days leading up to his death.

It is also noted within MSHA’s report that Rick Aldrich’s left hand had been resting on part of the grader’s heater when he was found, which could have also contributed to his burns, though within the summary of autopsy findings list that Aldrich’s burn marks are “evidence of electrocution.”

“His (burns) have characteristics that are specific to an electrical burn,” Nelson said.

Despite the findings of MSHA’s investigation, Lori Hoctor, Klickitat County prosecuting attorney, said she has not seen the MSHA report and stands by Nelson’s findings. As a result, Hoctor said she sees no evidence that would lead her to consider changing the cause or manner of death currently on Rick Aldrich’s death certificate.

“I am uncertain as to what evidentiary basis they had for their findings. To my knowledge, they have never examined the body, analyzed the tissue or received an opinion from a board-certified forensic pathologist contrary to the one who determined the original cause and manner of death,” Hoctor said in an email to The Enterprise.

Life continues with lingering questions

Moving on after the death of a husband and father has obviously been difficult for the Aldrich family.

At the time of her father’s death, M’Randa was gearing up to begin attending Columbia Gorge Community College and had to be convinced not to put off the move to the other side of the river.

“I was proud of her. She made that move and started school,” Aldrich said. “She has her hard times.”

It’s been especially difficult for the Aldrich’s son, Ryan, who played on sports teams his dad coached and rarely left his room in the months following Rick’s death.

Since then, both older children obtained jobs and Ryan managed to buy his own truck over the summer. He still doesn’t like to speak of his father’s death.

“Men don’t speak about their feelings. They’re not like women, they don’t talk. So I can’t just ask Ryan ‘how are you feeling?’ or things like that because he says ‘I don’t want to talk.’ So he’s not to that place yet and I don’t even know what that place would look like,” Tonya Aldrich said.

Mcenna still refuses to sleep alone, but Tonya Aldrich said Ryan has stepped up when it comes to taking care of his little sister.

“He’s looking after her,” Tonya Aldrich said.

As for her, MSHA’s ruling on her husband’s death not only confuses and troubles her because of the conflicting findings of the autopsy, but also worries her. The money she gets from the Department of Labor and Industries stems from a work-related accident, not natural causes.

For now all she can do is keep her family together and hope for some answers.

“I’m on edge as far as Labor and Industries goes because if they change their minds I’ll lose absolutely everything. I’ll lose this place. I’ll lose everything,” she said. “No amount of money could bring back a husband or a father and what they bring to a family led by Christ. It’s gone.”


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