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.

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3 responses to “No Reform Three Years After Massey Disaster”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “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.”.

    Not quite. The bill was rushed to a vote of the House of Representatives by California Democrat George Miller. The bill was rushed specifically to avoid having the Tea Party laden 2010 representatives vote on it. In other words, it was one of the last bills voted on by the 2008 House before the 2010 tea party influx. Unfortunately, the only way Miller could rush the bill to a vote was to do so under suspension. Using that approach requires a 2/3 majority to pass. The bill received a majority but not a 2/3 majority.

    Miller succeeded in gaining a 214-193 majority, with 26 members not voting. Every Republican except one opposed the safety effort.

    The bill was rushed to a vote before the UBB final report was released. Critics claimed that the costs of support for black lung would financially cripple the ailing coal industry. There was little time for fair economic analysis prior to the vote.

    I think a legitimate question exists as to whether the 2012 Congress would consider a measure similar to the Byrd Bill.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Interesting detail but DOA anyway. In fact, there have been several iterations of the Byrd Bill, including a new version in the House and another that was amended by Jay Rockefeller last summer.

    The bill was Tea Partied anyway and the fact that Byrd is dead removes some of the momentum for moral high ground it had.

    What is sad (and something I have written about ad infinitum) is that every major mine disaster has resulted in real legislative reform — Mannington in 1968, Buffalo Creek in 1972 and Sago in 2006.

    Not this time. Is it any wonder Obama is starting to go the executive route and F*^@ the Republicans?

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    I was going to put up a snippy remark about the far fewer number of deaths in the nuclear energy world, and that nobody gets buried in a uranium mine collapse after all. The mined material does not burn or explode, although maybe 3 percent of people actully know that. Fear and ignorace are the handmaidens of poverty.

    But then I thought about the weekend reminders of a true disaster that involved the nuclear submarine Thresher, out on a builder’s trial. It went down with all hands (129 souls, Navy and civilian shipbuilders) 50 years ago this past weekend. The suspected problem was leaking in a pressurized line that led to an electrial failure. Nuclear power was not the primary problem. Poor welding may have been.

    But the point of the Thresher story is it sparked a major design review, and complete reworking of the safety processes in building and operating nuclear submarines. The safety record since for the US Navy and its shipbuilders has been outstanding. A number of other countries have nuclear subs, and if they’ve had similar problems they are not known (the exception being the Russians.) No power source has a perfect safety record. Think of all the chimney fires for goodness sake.

    I’m not sure the problem in the coalfields is a lack of laws or regulations, rather than a lack of accountability and enforcement. And if efforts are being blocked in the Congress, I’m 100 percent sure members of both parties are involved in doing so. If you can point to a series of mine disasterst that resulted in legislative “reform”, then clearly none of them worked at all, did they?

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