West Virginia governor asks underground coal mines to halt production for a day

By Steven Mufson and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D) asked all underground coal mines in his state on Wednesday to halt production for one day, so that workers can review safety issues in the wake of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners south of Charleston.

The governor's request for what he called a "Day of Honor and Mourning" on Friday would shut down one of the state's biggest industries, idling 290 underground mines, curtailing nearly 400,000 tons of coal output and affecting about 15,000 people who work below the surface in the coal fields. Coal mining overall accounts for 6 percent of West Virginia's gross domestic product, more than any other sector.

Manchin also ordered state inspectors to reexamine mines, starting with those whose past violations carry the greatest risk of a similar explosion to the one at Upper Big Branch mine. The new inspections will take weeks, at least, officials said: Many mines have accumulated scores or hundreds of safety violations, a significant number of them for problems with ventilation or combustible materials, an issue thought to have played a role in last week's explosion.

"Mine health and safety laws are in place to protect our coal miners, but it's clear that a breakdown occurred and we lost 29 miners who should be with us today," Manchin said in a statement.

The average cost of shutting down an underground mine operation is about $11,000 a day, according to industry experts, and has been cited as a reason companies have contested violations and fought harsh enforcement by federal regulators.

Massey Energy, the largest coal mine operator in central Appalachia and the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, said it would comply with Manchin's request. "We agree with the Governor's request and believe it is an appropriate way to honor the miners we lost," the company said in a statement. "Massey will use this as an opportunity to reflect on the events of April 5th and will focus our attention on safety and training."

In Washington, meanwhile, lawmakers voiced their own sense of urgency about safety violations. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, identified 48 mines singled out by federal mine safety officials last August for increased scrutiny; unresolved appeals filed by mine operators enabled the mines to avoid tougher enforcement measures. The list included the Upper Big Branch mine and five others owned by Massey Energy. Patriot Coal Corp. owns four, and Arcelor Mittal owns three.

"We owe it to the families of these fallen miners, all mining communities across the country, and the American people to ensure that all relevant information regarding potentially dangerous conditions at mines be made public, especially as investigations into the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine continue. Mine operators who game the system to avoid tough scrutiny by federal safety officials must be held accountable," Miller said in a statement.

The mines on Miller's list would have been notified last year that they had fallen into a category called "pattern of violation," a prelude to tougher enforcement measures and even a shutdown. That notice gives mines 90 days to reduce serious citations by 30 percent or to bring violations down to the levels of mines of a comparable size and type. If they fail to do that, federal inspectors can shut down a mine if they find a single serious safety violation.

Many of the mines were able to avoid that notification by contesting safety citations. One small mine on the list contested 72.5 percent of its citations. All of Massey's five other mines contested more citations than its Upper Big Branch mine; two contested 55.5 percent.

Such contests helped clog the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's review board, delaying enforcement actions.

Agency officials said they were looking at placing companies with the highest number of violations on a high-priority list. This would move them to the front of the line with the agency's judicial review board.

"For any mine that MSHA thinks has increased hazards, there will be increased enforcement," said Carl Fillichio, an MSHA spokesman.

The federal agency also defended its choice of Norman Page, a 25-year veteran, to lead its inquiry into the Upper Big Branch explosion. Some industry experts said MSHA should reach outside its own ranks to avoid conflicts of interest and noted that Page himself had been the agency's district manager when an explosion killed five miners at the Kentucky Darby mine in 2006. An MSHA internal review sharply criticized the agency's procedures and oversight, though it blamed the mine operator for the deaths.

"I know there is no one more qualified for the job," Mike Davis, deputy assistant secretary for operations at MSHA, said in a statement. Davis, who led the agency's internal investigation of the Darby deaths, called Page "a consummate professional."

Nonetheless, mine safety experts said the agency should not conduct the investigation. "MSHA should not conduct this investigation, because they're conflicted," said James Sharpe, editor of a mine safety newsletter. "MSHA's circling the wagons. They don't want to come out as the bad guys, but they're going to. You're going to find that they made mistakes." Every investigation of mine disasters since 2006 has faulted MSHA for committing mistakes, Sharpe said.

Staff writers Frank Ahrens and Kimberly Kindy and research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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