Six Months After Massey Coal Disaster, Miners Still Dying, Oversight Failing

Art Levine

Even after 29 people were killed in the explosion at the nonunion Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the same industry and regulatory problems that helped kill them are essentially still in place, according to damning new reports by The Washington Post and the Labor Department’s Inspector General.

Yet, some critics say, even the Post’s coverage, in some ways, contributes to the ongoing claim by Washington regulators that there isn’t that much more they can do to enforce safety and it is ultimately the mine owners’ responsibility.

The Washington Post looked at the cases of nine people who died inside mines since reforms were supposed to be put in place at the troubled Mine Safety and Health Administration; the agency was excoriated in last week’s inspector general’s report for failing to crack down on repeat violators. Even with increased inspections since the April disaster, five men were killed by heavy machinery; four were killed by falling rock. They died in mines where safety citations had increased about 31 percent after the Upper Big Branch blast.” On top of that (hat tip to Coal Tattoo blog), four men died in accidents on the surface —  — driving trucks or operating machinery near mine entrances.”

As the Washington Post summed up: For safety experts and miners’ families, these recent disasters tell a familiar story: Enforcement efforts have been hampered by a backlogged appeals system and the lack of penalty for repeat offenders. The new federal crackdown still couldn’t ensure safe conditions underground.”

The article opened with the story of Jesse Adkins, 39, dying at yet another mine cited for repeated safety violations that the federal government has done relatively little to correct:

In the weeks after the worst U.S. coal-mining accident in 40 years, federal safety inspectors showed up repeatedly at a mine that snakes under the West Virginia hills: Loveridge No. 22.

On July 26, an inspector cited the mine for concerns that walls might crumble. He noted that this made 87 citations for problems with the roof or walls over two years.

Three days later, a chunk of rock 16 feet long and 41/2 feet high broke away from the mine’s wall, according to a federal accident report. Miner Jessie Adkins, 39, was caught beneath it.

He died before he got to a hospital.

Adkins is one of nine men who have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months since the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, in which 29 men were killed on April 5. This string of accidents has revealed key shortfalls in a push by the Obama administration to improve mine safety. 

As his mother, Joan Adkins, justly observed: The government should have seen that the mine took care of their violations. If they would’ve, maybe my son would still be here today.” 

A lot of the blame for these problems, experts say, falls on the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that is nearly as slow to reform itself as the Interior Department’s corrupt Mineral Management Service that wasn’t changed enough to prevent the BP disaster. As the inspector general’s report underscored: In 32 years, MSHA has never successfully exercised its pattern of violations authority…The administration of this authority has been hampered by a lack of leadership and priority in the Department across various administrations.”

Yet, according to the most astute chronicler of coal mine safety, Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog, even the Washington Post is sharing the perspective of the current administrator of MSHA that the primary responsibility for improving the mines lies with the operators themselves. That’s a view that encourages a passive acceptance of miner deaths as just a tragic cost of doing business, Ward contends.

It seems that for too many in Washington, there’s little need to do more because, as Hazel Dickens sings, it’s only a coal miner’s grave.” She reminds us what’s wrong with the business-as-usual mindset that remains all too prevalent:

That’s what comes from viewing the deaths of miners as just another by-product of a dirty” business. Quoting both from the Post account and the Inspector General’s report, Ward lays out the flaws in both the newspaper’s well-meaning account and the agency in charge of enforcing mine safety. It’s a bit long but well worth reading to understand the inside-the-Beltway mentality at work in mine safety:

Basically [the Washington Post] let the idea that some number of miner deaths are inevitable go unchallenged in its story. The Post allows MSHA to blame the continued deaths at least in part on what is really a more recent problem, the high rate of challenges of citations that are clogging up the appeals and enforcement process at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

And, the Post story also blamed the lack of penalty for repeat offenders” but spends precious little space explaining that MSHA has authority in that area, but simply hasn’t used it. [Emphasis added.] More of a discussion of the findings of last week’s Inspector General’s report on this subject would have helped the story quite a bit, especially in responding to this idea that MSHA chief Joe Main is peddling to the Post reporters:

Main said the deaths since the Upper Big Branch disaster demonstrate that some mining companies are still not addressing safety problems, but rather waiting for federal inspectors to notice them.

‘There is a problem in the mining industry. They want MSHA to fire-boss their mines,’ he said. A fire boss,’ in mining parlance, is someone who inspects the mine for safety risks.”

It’s fascinating that Joe Main made this point to the Post, especially given that about the only thing he didn’t like about last week’s IG report was this:

The draft report stated that, MSHA’s responsibility is to assure that mine operators protect all workers from mining hazards at all times …’”

Main responded:

Simply put, Congress gave mine operators the primary responsibility to prevent unsafe conditions and practices in mines. We are concerned that your articulation of MSHA’s responsibilities obscures the proper placement of that critical legal and moral responsibility to keep miners safe. MSHA cannot be in every mine, every day, on every shift …

… A more accurate description of MSHA’s responsibility is to enforce the law as effectively as possible by using all the enforcement tools at our disposal … in order to promote safe and healthful working conditions for our nation’s miners.”

The Inspector General replied:

Our statement and conclusion are based on requirements on the Mine Act that describe MSHA’s roles and responsibilities in setting safety and health standards, identifying instances of non-compliance (including patterns of violations), and compelling mine operators to take timely corrective actions.

These are integral components of the overall system for providing miners with a safe and healthy work environment.

Whenever MSHA does not fulfill these responsibilities, miners may be at risk.” [Emphasis added.]

With such problems and an owners-know-best attitude still apparently prevalent at the agency, it’s little wonder that the miners and their families are so frustrated that long-promised change” still hasn’t come to oversight of the coal industry (via the Post):

As reform efforts grind slowly, Upper Big Branch - once viewed as the explosion that would change everything - is looking more like past coal-mine catastrophes. In 2006, 12 men died in an explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia.

Reforms followed, but so did another disaster.

I don’t want to hear another politician say they will make sure it never happens again. ” said Deborah Hamner, whose husband, George, died at Sago. It’s time for miners to fight for safety. Washington isn’t going to do it.” 

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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