It appears that the W.Va. mine disaster could have been averted

Saturday, April 10, 2010

AS RESCUERS continue to try to find the four remaining miners trapped after the Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded on Monday, we're finding out plenty about Massey Energy chief executive Don L. Blankenship and the operations of that doomed facility. None of it is good. What's been revealed is a distressing effort to render ineffective the mining regulations that were strengthened in 2006 to bring a measure of safety to a very dangerous job.

As The Post reported Friday, safety violations have caused the evacuation of portions of that coal mine 64 times since the beginning of 2009. According to Mine Safety and Health News, in that year, 48 serious violations were recorded. That doesn't compare well with other mines of similar size. For instance, the Deer Creek mine in Utah has had only one serious violation in the past 15 years. Poor ventilation, high accumulation of combustible materials and inadequate protections from roof falls were the most oft-cited violations. Just last month, a test showed that the Upper Big Branch mine's ventilation system was circulating less than half the amount of air needed to keep methane and other combustible materials at safe levels. The massive explosion that claimed 25 lives in the Montcoal, W.Va., mine is believed to have been caused by a build-up of methane gas.

Mr. Blankenship has been able to get around the tougher regulations implemented by the 2006 MINER Act by aggressively challenging safety violation citations. Unresolved challenges were part of the reason the Upper Big Branch mine was removed from the "potential pattern of violation" list in 2007. Had this not happened, the Mine Safety and Health Administration would have had the power to shut down the mine until the problems were fixed.

President Obama has asked Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Joseph A. Main, head of MSHA, for a preliminary report next week on what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. "It's a profession that's not without risks and danger, and the workers and their families know that," Mr. Obama said of the coal industry Friday. "But their government and their employers know that they owe it to these families to do everything possible to ensure their safety when they go to work each day." A good place to start would be to ensure that the regulations on the books are vigorously enforced.

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