Today marks two years since an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed twenty-nine of the thirty-one workers inside. The blast occurred, investigators later said, because mine operator Massey Energy flouted even basic federal safeguards. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking,” read a report last year from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The MSHA report faulted the agency itself, as well, for continually allowing Massey to ignore a wide array of crucial safety rules. Regulators found an astonishing 515 violations in the years leading up to the explosion, yet refused to issue a flagrant violation citation which might have forced the company to change its practices—a failure that report described as “disturbing.” The MHSA also failed to notify miners they were working in mines that didn’t meet minimum safety standards.
Most gallingly, despite three methane-related explosions at Upper Big Branch since 1997—the same cause as the final catastrophic explosion—federal regulators “did not compel (or to our knowledge even ask) UBB management to implement” safety measures.
Massey has since reached a large settlement with the Department of Justice, and was bought by a competitor. But unfortunately, there have been no large scale changes at MSHA. Democrats introduced a bill in 2010 that would increase penalties for violations, expand whistleblower protection for miners and give federal regulators more power to enter mines and issue subpoenas—but Republicans killed it.
Today, on the anniversary of that disaster, the authors of that legislation spoke out about the still-urgent task of reforming mining oversight. Democratic Representatives Lynn Woolsey and George Miller said in a statement that “[t]he imperative to close loopholes in our nation’s mining laws remains with us and many of our colleagues.”
“There were many tears shed at the time and proclamations made from elected officials to honor the dead by taking all actions necessary to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again,” they said. “But, two years later, as the headlines and national attention have faded, we are in danger of losing the sense of urgency that is so often essential to moving legislation to keep miners safe.”
They also called for a reversal of budget cuts to MSHA, which has been struggling to appropriately staff operations. Miller has previously described workers at the MSHA as “overwhelmed and inexperienced.”
It should be noted that MSHA issued new rules for underground coal mine exams this week—though they are focused mainly on self-policing by mine operators. The new rules require coal company workers to conduct pre-shift and on-shift inspections, and record and report the results. The West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group, is fighting these new rules—because it says miners are “not trained to know federal regulations and shouldn’t be asked to perform the job of a federal inspector.”