Monday, April 06, 2015

Five years after big coal-mine disaster, safety hasn't improved, former mine-safety chief writes

Davitt McAteer
Five years after the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia killed 29 coal miners, the federal government has made no progress toward improving safety in mines, writes Davitt McAteer, who headed the governor’s independent investigation into the disaster and ran the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. Here are some excerpts from his piece in the Charleston Gazette:

"The explosion was no accident, but the result of a disregard of basic safety principles as well as federal and state regulations. But the regulators of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operators complied with minimum fundamental safety requirement. In profile, this disaster harkens back to the 1907 Monongah mine disaster which killed over 500 miners. Both resulted from excessive accumulation of coal dust and a failure to control ignition sources. The 103 years separating these disasters does not obscure the fact that when mine operators neglect basic safety principles, miners perish.

"Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, the United States Congress has failed to take any action. The West Virginia Legislature has, in fact, moved in the opposite direction, recently weakening existing mine-safety laws. The enforcement agencies have tinkered with their regulation efforts but not addressed major concerns, such as the increase in black lung: in the autopsies of the Upper Big Branch miners, 71 percent of the victims showed Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP) compared to the national prevalence rate for active underground miners of 3.2 percent, and several of these victims had less than 10 years’ mining experience.

"Still, MSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and West Virginia have failed to take adequate preventive action. Five teams investigated the disaster, and four of the five concluded that the company’s neglect and disregard of basic safety practice directly lead to the deaths. . . .

"Since 2010, the coal industry has blocked regulatory reform both nationally and within West Virginia. Any criticism or call for reform is viewed as an attack on the very existence of the industry. It refuses to negotiate reforms in health and safety and refuses to negotiate reforms in environmental matters. This approach only increases the risk to miners. As coal companies feel the economic pinch from declining demand and increased competition, the inclination will be to cut costs largely in safety and health protections. Protections which have for decades borne the brunt of cost-cutting measures. Miners, who themselves worry about employment and their families, are pressured not to push safety and health issues. 

"Federal and state agencies—both regulatory and research—whose existence depends upon a viable industry, will be inclined to adopt lenient or a non-confrontational approach to enforcement. The result is greater risks to miners. The coal industry is at yet another crossroads. It can either continue to adopt the last-man-standing approach or look to create solutions, first by addressing health and safety risks such as black lung and secondly focusing on the realities of a new energy world in which coal can play an important but no longer dominant role." (Read more)

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