By Peter Galuszka
Three years ago today, a tremendous blast caused by bad safety conditions at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 29 miners. It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years.
But three years later, very little has been done to toughen mine safety regulations so that serial violators such as the now defunct, Richmond-based Massey can squeeze profits from miners’ lives and also, from the mountains they have destroyed through severe mountaintop removal mining methods.
J. Davitt McAteer, a former U.S. Labor official and mining expert, and Beth Spence, a coalfield specialist for the American Friends Service Committee, write of failures on the state and federal level to stem safety abuses in the Charleston Gazette.
The West Virginia legislature passed a reform law in 2012 but much of it hasn’t been implemented, including improved measures to spray rock dust to keep down the coal dust of the type that helped carry Upper Big Branch’s destructive blast through seven miles of underground seams with fatal results.
The U.S. Congress is even more laggard. It has considered several versions of a law first proposed after Upper Big Branch by the late Sen. Robert Byrd to punish repeat safety violators, protect whistle blowers and make top management accountable when they make decisions that put safety at risk. The Byrd bill, as it is known, has been nowhere ever since the Republican Party, riding the Tea Party wave, took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.
Other disturbing points include a new audit at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration that it has implemented only about half of the internal changes recommended after the disaster. Also, legal teams at the Labor Department assembled to force mine operators to improve safety are being disbanded due to federal budget cuts. A favored Massey tactic was to mount legal challenges to most safety violations. The result was that important corrections were not made.
An even older problem seems unresolved. For years, miners were afflicted with pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, a debilitating and often fatal illness that comes from breathing coal dust. For 24 of the miners whose bodies had enough lung tissue to sample at autopsy (the rest were too ripped apart by the blast) there was evidence of black lung even though some were only in their 20s.
True, the coalfields of Central Appalachia are in a slump now that natural gas has out-priced coal in the electric utility market. But the fields of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky still produce plenty of metallurgical coal that is typically exported to make steel in China, India and Brazil. That was the product produced by the dead Massey miners.
Meanwhile, miners continue to die. In the first quarter of this year, eight miners have died including five in West Virginia alone. “This compares with five during the same period of 2012, two in 2011 and two in 2010 (before Upper Big Branch),” write McAteer and Spence.
Mind you, this is more than a year after Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011, entered into an agreement with federal prosecutors as part of a Massey settlement to spend millions in mine safety training and improvement.
The Alpha deal, however, has no legal clout over the coal industry. It would take legislation for that.
Sadly, miners’ lives don’t seem important enough to merit new laws.