Digging Deep to Improve Mine Safety

December 8, 2011

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.

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