Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print editions of The Washington Post, incorrectly said that the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was the nation's worst mining accident. That accident, which killed 29 people, was the worst in 40 years but not the worst in U.S. history. This version has been corrected.

New push to strengthen mine safety faces resistance based on longtime strategies

The Obama administration is challenging coal companies to either change their tactics and voluntarily improve safety or face the harsh sanctions. Already, this is proving difficult.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 10:41 AM

When Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis appeared before a gathering of coal mine owners in the fall, she signaled a sharp change in the relationship between the mining industry and the federal agency charged with protecting workers.

Inspectors from Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, she said, will serve as "cops on the beat," patrolling mines to find safety violations. New regulations will force "bad actors to clean up their act." And owners who fail to clean up safety problems will face federal shutdown under a 33-year-old provision that has never been used before, Solis said.

With memories of the nation's worst coal mining accident in decades still fresh - 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch site in West Virginia in April - the administration is challenging coal companies to either change their tactics and voluntarily improve safety or face the harshest sanctions the government can impose.

The new push to strengthen enforcement is already encountering resistance, according to longtime watchers of the coal industry, as companies employ the same legal and political strategies they've honed over decades to block federal reforms.

In November, the MSHA went to court to try to force Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch, to fix problems at another mine, which had accumulated 1,952 safety violations. The case was the first in which the MSHA had tried to shutter a mine and force a safety overhaul by using the "pattern of violations" provision (POV) approved by Congress in 1977.

But before the court ruled, Massey once again sidestepped the MSHA, saying it would idle the mine on its own, thus keeping the federal government from taking control of the mine and from interfering with the company's day-to-day operations.

The MSHA says the legal action against Massey is a sign of things to come. Last month, the agency listed 13 mines in danger of shutdown under the POV provision. Massey owns three of them, more than any other operator.

After every major mining accident, said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), author of a now-stalled coal safety bill, "there is great emotion that pours out for families, for their tragedy, their children and their community. Everyone pledges they will make it safer. But the mine owners, they just wait and let time work and let time erode emotion, and then they come to Washington. They tell members they can't do business this way. They can't make profits this way."

Solis challenged mine owners to stop their long history of resistance. "It's easy to dig in your heels and say it's 'us against them,' the united front of the mining industry against the legislators and the regulators," she said. "It's what we've seen repeated, time and time again - a disaster happens, the public is outraged, Congress and the regulators propose reform, and industry fights back."

Joseph A. Main was still awaiting Senate confirmation as President Obama's MSHA director in February 2009 when Don Blankenship, then president of Massey, the nation's sixth-largest coal company, asked for a meeting.

An industry stalwart who took the helm of Massey in 1992, Blankenship had effectively guided his company through serious accidents and the regulatory crackdowns that followed. In most tangles with federal regulators, Blankenship - a modern-day version of the old-fashioned coal baron - had held the upper hand.

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