The mood was as heavy as the humidity during a July 27 commemoration in Whitesville, W.Va., a creaky little coal town nestled in a tight valley by the narrow Coal River and a railroad spur. Hundreds of people, including miners in fluorescent-striped work garb and a young girl in a lacy white dress bearing a bouquet of plastic green flowers, were on hand for the unveiling of a granite memorial to 29 miners who died April 5, 2010 , in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine a few miles down Route 3.
For more than two years, Whitesville has been a sorrowful epicenter for the aftermath of the blast, blamed by three sets of investigators on now-defunct Massey Energy, one of the most notorious mine-safety violators in recent history. The town was where families assembled on that horrible spring night to learn the fates of loved ones. At the ceremony, Rob Dinsmore, the memorial’s designer, sounded a hopeful note: “This is not a tombstone, but an opportunity.”
Yet as politicians spoke, something was left strangely unsaid. Despite the enormity of the Upper Big Branch disaster, the tragedy has not led to any significant new federal legislation to stop a serial safety violator such as Massey from cutting corners and causing the deaths of more workers.
In 2010, the late U.S. senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill to give federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulators some of the powers they need to do their jobs effectively — to subpoena documents, protect whistleblowers and prosecute repeat safety offenders. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has recently expanded the bill. But the legislation has languished because of fierce congressional partisanship, the anti-regulation dogma of House Republicans and a Big Coal propaganda aimed at blunting new safety laws.
The lack of action goes against historic trends. For decades, every major fatal coal event in the Appalachians has brought reform. The sweeping federal mine safety law that set up MSHA, for example, was passed in 1969, a year after 78 miners died in a blast at a mine near Farmington, W.Va. A 1977 law forcing the reclamation of abandoned strip mines came five years after 125 people were killed when a coal slurry dam broke and a 30-foot-tall wave of rancid water shattered Buffalo Creek. In 2006, another law was passed after 12 miners were lost at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., requiring miners to wear underground radio transmitters to help locate them in an accident. The instruments were on order at Upper Big Branch but had not been installed before the explosion.
Despite dozens of lawsuits from victims’ families and criminal prosecutions of a couple of minor Massey officials, the only legal action of any substance so far has been a civil settlement brought about by the U.S. attorney’s office in Charleston. In December, prosecutors announced that officials from Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey in 2011, had agreed to pay $210 million. Of that, $47 million has gone to survivors of Upper Big Branch miners and $35 million will cover Massey’s fines. About $128 million will help raise safety standards at all of the mines owned by Alpha, including former Massey properties.
But the new standards will not carry any legal force at other coal companies. While Alpha has pushed an aggressive public relations campaign that includes donating $250,000 for the Whitesville memorial, it is also helping bankroll a coal industry campaign to stave off new regulation as Big Coal takes a drubbing from new competition from natural gas.
In early June, the coal industry effort included a rally in Southwest Virginia attended by Republicans George Allen, running for U.S. Senate, and Ken Cuccinelli and Bill Bolling, Republican candidates for governor. The campaign’s real goal seems to be to bottle up the mine-safety law introduced by Byrd and expanded by Rockefeller. Among other changes, the law would make knowingly violating safety rules a felony instead of a misdemeanor, prevent repeats of Massey’s tactic of blunting enforcement by challenging every regulatory citation and give MSHA the power to subpoena records, which, incredibly, it does not now have. The Agriculture and Interior departments, by contrast, have subpoena power for far less serious problems, such as milk-price rigging or threatening animals on the endangered list.
At the Whitesville ceremony, a sense of frustration pervaded the sadness. “There’s no real change while Massey gets off with millions,” said Gary Quarles, a disabled miner who lost his son at Upper Big Branch and has traveled to Washington to push for reform. Indeed, mine-safety reform goes wanting. At 4:15 a.m. on the day of the unveiling, Johnny Mack Bryant II, 35, of Lenore, W.Va., was crushed to death by machinery at a mine about 30 miles west of Whitesville. So far, 13 miners have died this year, a higher rate than average.
The writer blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion and is a participant in The Post’s Local Blog Network. His book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press) will be published in September.