Nice Memorial, But No New Mine Safety Laws

by Peter Galuszka

The mood was as heavy as the humidity during a July 27 commemoration in Whitesville, W.Va., a creaky little coal town nestled in a tight valley by the narrow Coal River and a railroad spur. Hundreds of people, including miners in fluorescent-striped work garb and a young girl in a lacy white dress bearing a bouquet of plastic green flowers, were on hand for the unveiling of a granite memorial to 29 miners who died April 5, 2010 , in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine a few miles down Route 3.

For more than two years, Whitesville has been a sorrowful epicenter for the aftermath of the blast, blamed by three sets of investigators on now-defunct Massey Energy, one of the most notorious mine-safety violators in recent history. The town was where families assembled on that horrible spring night to learn the fates of loved ones. At the ceremony, Rob Dinsmore, the memorial’s designer, sounded a hopeful note: “This is not a tombstone, but an opportunity.”Yet as politicians spoke, something was left strangely unsaid. Despite the enormity of the Upper Big Branch disaster, the tragedy has not led to any significant new federal legislation to stop a serial safety violator such as Massey from cutting corners and causing the deaths of more workers.In 2010, the late U.S. senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill to give federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulators some of the powers they need to do their jobs effectively — to subpoena documents, protect whistleblowers and prosecute repeat safety offenders. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has recently expanded the bill. But the legislation has languished because of fierce congressional partisanship, the anti-regulation dogma of House Republicans and a Big Coal propaganda aimed at blunting new safety laws.

The lack of action goes against historic trends. For decades, every major fatal coal event in the Appalachians has brought reform. The sweeping federal mine safety law that set up MSHA, for example, was passed in 1969, a year after 78 miners died in a blast at a mine near Farmington, W.Va. A 1977 law forcing the reclamation of abandoned strip mines came five years after 125 people were killed when a coal slurry dam broke and a 30-foot-tall wave of rancid water shattered Buffalo Creek. In 2006, another law was passed after 12 miners were lost at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., requiring miners to wear underground radio transmitters to help locate them in an accident. The instruments were on order at Upper Big Branch but had not been installed before the explosion.

Despite dozens of lawsuits from victims’ families and criminal prosecutions of a couple of minor Massey officials, the only legal action of any substance so far has been a civil settlement brought about by the U.S. attorney’s office in Charleston. In December, prosecutors announced that officials from Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey in 2011had agreed to pay $210 million. Of that, $47 million has gone to survivors of Upper Big Branch miners and $35 million will cover Massey’s fines. About $128 million will help raise safety standards at all of the mines owned by Alpha, including former Massey properties.

But the new standards will not carry any legal force at other coal companies. While Alpha has pushed an aggressive public relations campaign that includes donating $250,000 for the Whitesville memorial, it is also helping bankroll a coal industry campaign to stave off new regulation as Big Coal takes a drubbing from new competition from natural gas.In early June, the coal industry effort included a rally in Southwest Virginia attended by Republicans George Allen, running for U.S. Senate, and Ken Cuccinelli and Bill Bolling, Republican candidates for governor.

The campaign’s real goal seems to be to bottle up the mine-safety law introduced by Byrd and expanded by Rockefeller. Among other changes, the law would make knowingly violating safety rules a felony instead of a misdemeanor, prevent repeats of Massey’s tactic of blunting enforcement by challenging every regulatory citation and give MSHA the power to subpoena records, which, incredibly, it does not now have. The Agriculture and Interior departments, by contrast, have subpoena power for far less serious problems, such as milk-price rigging or threatening animals on the endangered list.

At the Whitesville ceremony, a sense of frustration pervaded the sadness. “There’s no real change while Massey gets off with millions,” said Gary Quarles, a disabled miner who lost his son at Upper Big Branch and has traveled to Washington to push for reform. Indeed, mine-safety reform goes wanting. At 4:15 a.m. on the day of the unveiling, Johnny Mack Bryant II, 35, of Lenore, W.Va., was crushed to death by machinery at a mine about 30 miles west of Whitesville. So far, 13 miners have died this year, a higher rate than average.

The writer blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion and is a participant in The Post’s Local Blog Network. His book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press) will be published in September.

(First printed in The Washington Post)

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  1. […] who died April 5, 2010 , in a massive explosion at [Massey's] Upper Big Branch mine. The tragedy has not led to any significant new federal legislation to stop a serial safety violator such as Massey from cutting corners and causing the deaths of more […]

  2. DJRippert Avatar


    I am looking forward to reading your upcoming book, Thunder on the Mountain.

    One thing I’ve always found interesting is Southwest Virginia’s love affair with conservative Republican politicians. It seems like Southwest Virginia is where people like Cuccinelli and Allen go when they want to be surrounded by friends.

    Why is that?

    There are very few Romney signs in the inner city. However, there are lots of Romney signs in poor, rural areas. It seems like the basic issues facing inner cities and poor rural areas are similar – a lack of jobs, bad schools, etc. Yet one group is perhaps the most ardent set of Democrats and the other group is perhaps the most ardent set of Republicans.


    The mining legislation is a case in point. Massey energy wasn’t some rural company built by people in rural Virginia. It was a Richmond-based coal brokering business started in 1920. It was a paper shuffling middle-man until 1945 when it acquired its first mining operation. Your point about Massey’s safety record speaks for itself.

    Why do people in Southwest Virginia support politicians who are opposed to better mine safety regulations?

    Is the theory that the regulations will reduce the jobs available mining coal?

    You would think that after yet another mining disaster the people in coal country would run politicians like Ken Cuccinelli out of town on a rail. But they don’t.

    George Allen lives in Mt Vernon. His old congressional district ran from Charlottesville to Mt Vernon. He chose to live ass close to DC as possible within that district. So, when he professes his distaste and hatred for Washington why doesn’t anybody ask why he lives here? He parades around Southwest Virginia talking about “the real Virginia”. However, he’s been out of politics for years and still lives in Northern Virginia. When do the people in SW Va decide he’s a phony?

  3. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    My question in all of this since the beginning? Where are the Unions???

    I’m not the least bit shocked to find a large corporation willing to put its people at risk in the interest of efficiency and profits. Nor do the blinders on politicians ever surprise me. But I really do expect the Unions to make the safety of their members their #1 priority. If conditions are known to be bad; if safety rules are knowingly being skirted, then strike.

    The workers are unionized, they have the power to stay home as a group until Massey or their competitors in other mines make it a far safer place for them to go to work.

    Honestly, one good miner’s strike would fix most all of this.

  4. I agree with that it’s an irony that where workers at often at risk – and depend on govt to protect them (with regulations) that they often vote for politicians who are more aligned with companies – and opposed to regulation.

    And with miners – it’s even doubly ironic because they originally formed unions at a time when govt had little or no role in regulation and the companies would often hire thugs to try to break the unions, even using local and sometimes state law enforcement to support the company hired thugs.

    Only when the Feds finally got involved – to actually protect the basic civil rights of those who were allied with the unions did we end up with the Feds involved with protecting the right to unionize and with regulating the mining industry to protect workers.

    And yet, as DJ points out, those who often are the ones who most benefit from the involvement of the govt, will often vote for those who would neuter or remove govt.

    RoVa is like this. RoVa, in general, gets a ton of financial assistance from schools to medicare to food stamps and yet they vote heavily for those who would cut those benefits.

    It is indeed a paradox.

    and I intend to read Peter’s book also.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The Post piece didn’t have space but in fact the UMWA tried and failed to organize Upper Big Branch three times and failed. Massey (pre Blankenship) played an instrumental role in breaking the UMWA back during a vicious strike in the mid 1980s. Renegade CEO Blankenship later was notoriously anti-unionand Massey’s unionization rate was something like 4 percent. Unions are weak in southern West Va and southwest Virginia.

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