A West Virginia coal mine explosion demands action

Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A16

THE HEARTACHE that has gripped Montcoal, W.Va., is unfathomable. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine on Monday claimed the lives of 25 miners. Four miners remain unaccounted for. Not since a 1984 fire in Utah has there been such loss of life at a coal mine. And it shouldn't have happened.

After the 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act. Its provisions included a requirement for emergency response plans and a mandate for breathable air underground that could be accessible in the event of an accident. Civil and criminal penalties were also increased for violations of safety standards, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration was given the authority to temporarily shut a facility for nonpayment. Would that Upper Big Branch had been shuttered.

Last month alone, Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine and the fourth-largest producer of coal in the United States, racked up dozens of safety violations. It was hit with about 50 citations, many of which were for failure to maintain proper escape routes, inadequate protection from roof falls and for poor ventilation of dust and menthane. A buildup of the toxic gas is believed to be the cause of Monday's explosion. Between 2005 and Monday, Massey Energy has been hit with 1,342 violations worth $1.89 million in fines. The company's safety violations over the past year have cost it more than $382,000.

Gov. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) described the explosion as "a really horrific blast." Rescue attempts had to be called off because of dangerous levels of methane. Four holes are being drilled near where the missing miners are believed to be in order to ventilate the gas and allow rescuers to go in and find them. But the drilling operation won't be complete until sometime Wednesday.

Everyone is hoping for a miracle like the one in Sago where, 40 hours after an explosion, Randal McCloy Jr. was pulled out alive. It could be that the Montcoal miners are safe in an airtight chamber that has four days' worth of food, water and oxygen. Whatever the outcome, regulators -- or Congress -- must find out what happened and ensure that if safety violations are involved, those responsible are held accountable. Coal mining is dangerous, but that doesn't mean that mines can't be operated safely.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company