Three years ago today, a tremendous blast caused by unsafe conditions at now-defunct 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, little has been done to toughen mine safety regulations to stop serial violators from squeezing profits from miners’ lives and from ravaged mountains.
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 in the Charleston Gazette of failures on the state and federal levels to stem safety abuses .
The West Virginia legislature passed a reform law in 2012, but much of it hasn’t been implemented, including measures to keep down the coal dust of the type that helped carry Upper Big Branch’s destructive blast through seven miles of underground seams.
Congress has been 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 whistleblowers and make top management accountable for decisions that put safety at risk.
Other disturbing points include a new audit at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration showing 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 safety citations, and the result was that important corrections were not made.
True, the coalfields of Central Appalachia are in a slump now that natural gas has outpriced 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 Massey miners who died in 2010.
Meanwhile, miners continue to die, eight of them in the first quarter of this year, and 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. Sadly, their lives don’t seem to count for much.