April 5, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

One year ago, an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia killed 29 miners. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., who has covered the disaster and its aftermath extensively, writes today on his Coal Tattoo blog:

Stay tuned today to hear a lot of political leaders talking about coal miners … They’re going to talk about how hard working miners are, and how they put their lives on the line to provide electricity and put food on table for their families. They’re going to talk about how we need to remember and honor the dead, and about how these men (well, mostly men) who go underground are a special breed.

All those things are true.

But when you hear one of these political leaders — whether it’s Sen. Joe Manchin or Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito — try to nose your way in there and ask them exactly what they’ve done in the last year to make sure that no family every has go to through what 29 families have been forced to face over the last year.

The media coverage has been pretty solid, or at least uniform, on this issue over the last several days, reporting in outlet after outlet about how neither the West Virginia Legislature nor the U.S. Congress has found the time, political will or inclination to pass any new mine safety legislation. Special investigator Davitt McAteer gave then-Gov. Manchin some proposals not long after the mine blew up. Manchin wasn’t interested. Neither was Tomblin. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wrote a bill based in part on the recommendations of Upper Big Branch miners and families. Congressional Republicans blocked it.

In the months before the blast, the Upper Big Branch Mine racked up a record of safety violations that far exceeded the national rate. NPR’s Howard Berkes, who has also been following the disaster investigation closely, reported in January that experts seem to be focusing on inadequate ventilation and malfunctioning water-spraying equipment as factors that allowed an infusion of methane gas (which is common in coal mining) to become a deadly fireball. In two stories that aired this week, Berkes also reports on documents from the explosion’s immediate aftermath that indicate Massey Energy failed to meet federal and state requirements for reporting mine accidents within 15 minutes and had trouble determining which miners were underground. The confusion persisted for several hours, during which family members were anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones.

Despite Massey’s appalling safety record, the government hasn’t done much to punish company executives. Ken Ward Jr. reports:

Despite years of environmental problems and dozens of mining deaths, Massey and its corporate officials — including now-retired CEO Don Blankenship — have mostly escaped any serious, direct punishment.

… [Long before the explosion] at Raleigh County’s Upper Big Branch Mine, Massey had its share of run-ins with the law. Inspectors doled out thousands of citations, and agencies levied millions in fines. Widows and injured miners sued. Citizens filed pollution complaints. In the past decade alone, at least four Massey subsidiaries have pleaded guilty to workplace safety or environmental crimes.

Still, regulators have almost always cited one of Massey’s maze of operating subsidiaries or independent contractors. Prosecutors squeezed section foremen or fire bosses into guilty pleas. Even personal injury lawyers who represented the families of miners killed at Massey operations generally ended up in court against a subsidiary several layers from Massey, or against one of the firm’s insurance carriers.

It’ll probably take a combination of changes to legislation and to Mine Safety and Health Administration practices before coal-company executives feel they face a credible threat of severe penalties when workers are killed or injured. Will those changes be made before more miners die?

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