Digging Deep to Improve Mine Safety

A year ago April, America suffered its worst mining disaster in 40 years with the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010 that resulted in the death of 29 coal miners.

Image: Breaking news alert about mine explosion on April 5, 2010. Source: KATU TV.

This past Tuesday, December 6, 2011, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued its final report on the causes of this tragedy.

Entitled “Report of Investigation: Fatal Underground Mine Explosion April 5, 2010”, the report reiterated earlier conclusions that blamed Massey Energy management for what MSHA investigators called total “systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts to avoid compliance” with mine safety law.

Image: Kevin Stricklin, Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), announcing the final report on the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Source:  http://articles.boston.com/

The report found that the accident was entirely preventable, but that deliberate actions by the company and inexplicable oversights and decisions by the Federal inspectors led to the tragic consequences.

Some of the more egregious issues cited in the report include:  falsifying records and keeping two sets of books; failure to perform examinations; failure to identify, record or correct obvious hazards; inadequate training; a culture of intimidation of the miners; allowing methane to accumulate without proper ventilation in place; and Federal investigators giving the company advanced notice of upcoming inspections.

Additional investigations are under way about MSHA’s role in this disaster as well.

History repeats itself…unfortunately

The December 6 date for the announcement of the Upper Big Branch report is significant since it marks the 104th anniversary of Monongah, the worst mining disaster in U.S. history in which 361 men and boys in West Virginia lost their lives, leaving over 250 widows and 1000 children without support.

Image:  Monongah Mine catastrophe, December 6, 1907. Source: West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Sadly, reports about the causes of the Monongah Mine explosion eerily echo the Upper Big Branch report’s findings, says Boise State history professor Dr. Nick Casner:

Thirteen days after the [Monongah Mine] accident, an official Federal government report on mining accidents and deaths was released. On December 19[, 1907,] The New York Times reported that the government document said the number of accidents due to mining explosions had steadily increased and the cause of these accidents were often caused by of “lack of proper and enforceable mine regulations.”

Does the punishment fit the crime? Were these violations even considered crimes?

The publishing of the final Upper Big Branch report this past Tuesday coincided with the announcement by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, that the Federal Government had reached one of the largest mine disaster settlements ever—a $209 million civil and criminal settlement—with the company that bought Massey Energy earlier this year, Alpha Natural Resources. The settlement protects Alpha executives from prosecution, but not Massey management, 18 of which to date have refused to be interviewed by federal investigators, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

Image: Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010, in Charleston, W.Va. Source: Jeff Gentner, Associated Press.

However, a number of industry watchdog groups say that the current relatively weak mining safety laws may make it difficult for the Government to prosecute the people who ran Massey.

Why? Because under the current federal mine act, safety violations are only categorized as misdemeanors, with the exception of falsification of records.

How to prevent it from happening again… Congress explores solutions.

Families of this and other mining disasters as well as concerned citizens are asking what can and is being done to prevent this sort of tragedy from occurring again and killing more miners.

Image: Tuesday, April 5, 2011. Mine helmets and painted crosses at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va. serve as a memorial to the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine a year before. Source: MSNBC.com

On May 4 of this year, the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing by its Subcommittee on Workforce Protections about “Modernizing Mine Safety.”

This hearing came about, according to Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), because:

[W]e want to determine whether these changes [proposed by the MSHA] will produce the safety results we hope to achieve. That is why the testimony from today’s witnesses is so important. Our witnesses have more than 100 years of combined mine safety experience, and their professional expertise and personal knowledge will help inform Congress about the current state of mine safety enforcement, whether MSHA – in their opinion – is on the right track, and what other tools are needed to safeguard the health and well-being of miners.

One of these witnesses, Cecil E. Roberts, President United Mine Workers of America, gave some examples in his testimony of problems with current MSHA criminal penalties, enforcement and advance notice of inspections:

In addition to needing more—and more up-to-date – equipment, MSHA’s enforcement tools should also be modernized. For example, MSHA’s criminal penalties have been so insignificant that they have not served to deter unlawful conduct.

In order to allow inspectors to observe actual mining practices, Congress mandated that MSHA’s periodic inspections be conducted on an unannounced, surprise basis. Therefore, it has been against the law for anyone to give advance notice of MSHA inspections. Yet, as we have learned from the Upper Big Branch investigation and the indictment the Assistant US Attorney issued against Hughie Elbert Stover, the head of security for Performance Coal Company, Mr. Stover regularly and continually used signals to give advance notice of MSHA inspections.

Miners from Upper Big Branch have also reported that they were directed to and did change their mining practices, making short-term adjustments only when they learned that government inspectors were coming to a section to inspect. 

How do I learn more about mine safety issues?

One of the more interesting and important roles the Government Printing Office has is to transcribe and formally publish the details of Congressional hearings such as these. Reading the testimony from mine safety experts and others in the mining industry gives some fascinating details about and insight into a world few of us get to see: from boardrooms high in office towers to deep underground, where mining operations are either decided or executed.

You can get your own  copy of the May 4, 2011, Mine Safety Hearing testimony by the following methods:

  • Purchase a printed copy of the Modernizing Mine Safety Hearing, May 4, 2011” testimony, contact GPO via one of the methods below, asking for GPO Stock Number 552-070-43024-5:
    • Mail your request for this publication to: U.S. Government Printing Office, Main Bookstore, 710 N. Capitol St., Washington, DC 20402-9315
    • Call toll-free 866-512-1800; or 202-512-1808 (DC metro area or international)
    • Fax 202-512-1355
    • E-mail mainbks@gpo.gov
    • Online:  Note: This item cannot be ordered online.
  • Find it on GPO’s FDSys document archive database.

Other Related Federal Publications about Mine Safety:  Additional official publications about mine safety laws and enforcement actions can be found on our online bookstore.

  • Amended Mine Act, Procedural Rules, and EAJA Rules  – This publication contains the updated version of Title I of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) integrated with the provisions of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act), and the Commission’s procedural and Equal Access to Justice Act rules.

About the Author:  Michele Bartram is Promotions Manager for GPO’s Publication and Information Sales Division and is responsible for online and offline marketing of the US Government Online Bookstore (Bookstore.gpo.gov) and promoting Federal government content to the public. Several generations back, some of her relatives came from the hard-working, coal-mining country around Huntington and Bartram, West Virginia.

18 Responses to Digging Deep to Improve Mine Safety

  1. Ian Carlos Gomez Barboza says:

    Appreciating the time and energy you put into your site and detailed information you provide. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.


  2. KaRene Matthews says:

    I am so grateful for your blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.


  3. KaRenciita Ortega says:

    I cannot thank you enough for the article.Much thanks again.


  4. Cameron Dertamuse says:

    It is important to restore the old fashioned family values that were destroyed in the advance of industrialization and post industrialization.


  5. Hazleton says:

    Nice job. It’s about time somebody like you told the truth. Way to go.


  6. […] searching for 49 Russians in freezing, remote waters after platform … – Washington PostDigging Deep to Improve Mine SafetyHumble 9/11 hero relives tale of the twin towers for tourists – The Guardianvar […]


  7. Research Paper says:

    Regulation and education are a great combination in promoting mine safety.


  8. Long Island Wine Country Hotels says:

    Dear Govbooktalk,
    Interesting Post, What important problem in the coal mining field did Thomas Newcomen’s storm engine guidance remedy?

    a)generating improved mining instruments

    b)digging deeper mine shafts

    c)pumping water out of shafts

    d)detecting harmful gases
    I look forward to your next post


    • GPOBookstore says:

      Thanks for your interesting question! For the curious readers out there, the answer is (c), the Newcomen steam engine helped pump water out of mine shafts. ”
      Here is a bit of the background:

      The atmospheric engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, today referred to as a Newcomen steam engine (or simply Newcomen engine), was the first practical device to harness the power of steam to produce mechanical work.[1] Newcomen engines were used throughout Britain and Europe, principally to pump water out of mines, starting in the early 18th century. James Watt’s later Watt steam engine was an improved version of the Newcomen engine.


  9. Bruce Milam says:

    I Believe the person who said ” the cost of doing business” hit the nail on the head. What pain can be placed on those responsible that would reflect the pain suffered by those poor miners?


  10. […] always cry when hearing mining disasters in the world. … … See the original post: Digging Deep to Improve Mine Safety « Government Book Talk ← Rest Your Fears: Big Earthquakes Not on the Rise Researchers Say Earthquakes Triggered […]


  11. aacasteel says:

    I am always illuminated by posts from the GPO. Thank you for your work!


  12. sparta kakanjac says:

    il faut proteger des faible et plus de protection sur tout..merci de votre engagement


    • GPOBookstore says:

      For non-French speakers, an online translator tool roughly translates this comment as:

      “The weak must be protected, and have more protection over all .. thank you for your commitment.”


  13. PaymentGuy says:

    The real issue that may mitigate some short term risk is to enforce the regulations already in place. Without adequate enforcement, why would safety regulations be followed ? Fines from regulators would simply be considered a cost of doing business.


  14. Joao Batista de Almeida says:

    Hello, I’m in Brazil and this moment is a moment for prevention all threat and mistakes around the world. I’m working in management and the main [focus] is accidents, single or mass ones. We have to create a Group for Preservation of the Humanhood, searching laws to [circumscribe] these occurrence, the terrorism, the presupposition that the bad inspection is normal. The situation of the world require our sentiments in favor of the others.


  15. unizik says:

    Digging Deep to Improve Mine Safety is really a nice piece


  16. armansyahardanis says:

    Simultaneous Miners, Robots, and Technologies.-

    We always cry when hearing mining disasters in the world. These accidents could be eliminate step by step by govt. or corporate or illegal workers who are responsibility that safety job in safety zone. “Green” Technology helps them to exploit the mining resources.-


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