A TEST FOR LABOR: As The Nation goes to press, the death toll of a devastating explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia has reached twenty-five. The blast was so severe that many of the dead have yet to be identified, and four miners remain unaccounted for. The grief in this small coal-mining community south of Charleston is likely compounded by the very real possibility that the accident was preventable.
In March alone the mine, a nonunion facility owned by Massey Energy, was cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for fifty-three safety violations. For example, new communications equipment that would enable rescuers to pinpoint the location of potential survivors, required by legislation passed in the wake of the 2006 Sago disaster, was only "partially installed." That law also stiffened penalties, to which mine operators responded with an avalanche of appeals, the subject of a February House Labor Committee hearing, where MSHA’s new head, Joe Main, testified that 82,000 safety violations have piled up, awaiting remedy. Committee chair George Miller speculated at the time, "Perhaps this process is protecting those with the worst records."
Massey may have just proved Miller right: of nearly $900,000 in MSHA fines issued last year at Upper Big Branch–hundreds of them for safety violations considered "significant and substantial"–Massey has contested more than 80 percent. As long as those fines are being challenged, points out Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, MSHA is blocked from taking further action, such as putting Massey’s mine on a list of pattern offenders, which would trigger rigorous intervention.
Despite this atrocious foot-dragging, Massey CEO Don Blankenship had the gall to claim to a West Virginia radio station that neither MSHA nor state regulators "would have allowed the mine to operate if it were thought to be unsafe." In December 2008 Massey was slapped with the largest coal- mining safety fines in history, totaling $4.2 million, and the company pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the deaths of two miners at another West Virginia mine in 2006. In filing suit against Massey, the widows of those miners uncovered a 2005 memo that revealed Blankenship’s open hostility to safety measures. "If any of you have been asked by your…engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal," the memo to mine supervisors read, "you need to ignore them and run coal."
The West Virginia explosion, the deadliest mining disaster since 1984, is the first major test for Obama’s new Labor Department. Secretary Hilda Solis has promised to investigate and "take action." But that means she and Main will either have to find a way to hold reckless operators like Massey accountable in the face of a crippling appeals process–or push Congress to pass a new mining bill that will close the lethal loopholes. ESTHER KAPLAN