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Mr. Jim DeMarce, Director of the Labor Department’s Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation, passed away suddenly on April 12.  He served coal miners and their families for 25 years, helping them wade through the federal black lung benefits program.  He was also known more recently for his efforts during the Clinton Administration to improve the regulations for processing that seem forever stacked against workers in favor of coal mine operators. 

Steve Sanders of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center said this about Jim DeMarce:

I was acquainted with Jim for about 10 years through my work on black lung benefits claims.  He regularly attended the annual meeting of the Black Lung Clinics and Respiratory Disease Clinics.   Each year Jim would give a presentation on the federal black lung program with statistical information, such as the approvals and length of time for adjudications. 

Jim was very concerned about disabled miners and widows and wanted to see the black lung benefits program serve the disabled miners and widows in the ways it was intended.  He worked on the 2000 amendments to the regulations, trying to create a more level playing field for claimants, who up to that time were being completely overwhelmed by the superior resources of the insurance companies fighting against them. 

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

MSHA last Tuesday issued a citation to the Performance Coal Co. Upper Big Branch Mine – South, alleging insufficient measures to control explosive coal dust before the fatal April 5 explosion.  The April 13 citation was based on a sample taken March 15 – three weeks before the fatal accident. The time required for lab analysis of such samples creates a lag in obtaining results.  An MSHA inspector took eight dust samples from mine surfaces on March 15, the citation stated.

“One out of eight samples taken were less than 80 per centum of combustible [sic] content,”

read the text of the citation, in a printout from MSHA’s computer system obtained by Mine Safety and Health News.

MSHA alleged that the mine violated standard 75.403.  The standard specifies that incombustible content of underground coal mine surfaces required to be rock dusted must be at least 65% in general, 80% in return air courses, and still higher – according to a formula – for each 0.1% methane present.  The samples were taken on Mechanized Mining Unit 029-0, according to the citation.  A detailed mine map provided by MSHA indicated that that 029-0 was the number of the unit engaged in developing a new area for future longwall mining.

In issuing the citation – 8 days after the blast – MSHA characterized the alleged violation as “reasonably” likely to cause up to 30 deaths. Negligence by the mine operator was characterized as “low,” however.  The April 5 accident remains under investigation, and whether the alleged violation could have actually contributed remains undetermined.

MSHA also on April 13 issued a withdrawal order to the Upper Big Branch Mine under section 104(b) for alleged failure to correct a previously cited violation within the time allowed, the agency database showed.

MSHA did not respond today to a request for specifics on the alleged uncorrected violation.

Kathy Snyder worked at MSHA for 26 years in the office of public affairs.  She retired from her career position at the agency in 2004, and is the Washington, DC correspondent for Ellen’s Smith publication  Mine Safety and Health News

by Pete Galvin

In response to the recent tragedy at the Upper Big Branch (Massey) mine in WestVirginia, the President instructed the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to take some rulemaking actions.  Accordingly, it is a good time to take a look at how the President’s own directives and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) determinations make it much harder for MSHA to protect this Nation’s miners.

As it happens, the specific rulemaking MSHA was asked to undertake is not likely to call the President’s rulemaking oversight policies into question.  The rule that is apparently to be changed involves the procedures for determining whether a mine is eligible to be charged with a “pattern of violations.”  MSHA can basically shut down a mine’s production unless the pattern (i.e., a whole series of separate violations) is abated.  There are a variety of methods available under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to accomplish such a change without extensive notice and comment, provided the agency makes the required findings under the APA — and provided the mining industry decides not to challenge these findings in court. 

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

I wasn’t able to catch President Obama’s remarks on mine safety live, but immediatley saw the summary by Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo.  Two main thrusts in the points flagged by Ken: MSHA needs a better way of identifying mines that need extra enforcement attention.  And new legislation is almost 100% certain in the next months.  Update: exceptionally strong words from the President’s actual statement:

….we do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine — a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.

Many experienced, intelligent and thoughtful people will be giving their best attention to reforming mine safety.  The S-Miner Act, which was proposed but not enacted after Crandall Canyon in 2007, is one likely starting point.  Not an engineer, nor an attorney — but nevertheless, having worked more than 30 years around mine safety issues, I would like to offer a few personal reflections that someone might possibly find useful.

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by Tom Bethell

Twenty-nine coal miners lost their lives in last week’s massive explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.


Part of the answer to that question will have to wait until the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducts its investigation of the disaster.  Only then will we know precisely where the ignition point was and why methane was allowed to build to the point where it constituted 5 to 15 percent of the mine atmosphere — the range at which the otherwise inert gas becomes lethally explosive.

But no one familiar with the coal mining industry will have to wait to answer the larger question:

Why do coal miners die?

They die because of negligence.  They die because the company they work for cares more about running coal than making mines safe.  And they die because the federal agency that is charged with protecting them fails in its mission.

About the first instance of negligence there can be no question.  The explosion was too violent and too extensive to have been caused by a pocket of methane alone.  The initial blast must have ignited coal dust — which is even more explosive than methane — and that couldn’t have happened if management had been diligent about cleaning up accumulations of loose coal, particularly along the conveyor belt carrying coal out of the mine.  But we know from MSHA’s inspection records that maintenance at Upper Big Branch never got top priority.  That went to production — regardless of how many times the mine was cited for lax safety practices.

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

One week after the Upper Big Branch explosion, apparently no confirmed listing yet exists of the 29 miners who lost their lives in the catastrophe.  A spokeswoman at Massey Energy told me this morning,

“Out of respect for the families, the company is not releasing names at this time.”

A state spokesperson also advised this morning that Office of Mine Safety & Licensing (OMSL) is not releasing names and suggested contacting the medical examiner’s (ME) office; an administrative person at the ME’s office did not immediately return a message.  No official fatality list has appeared on MSHA’s helpful single-source page to date, and an email to the MSHA press office about this has not been answered.

Journalists apparently have been left to piece the fatality list together by combing through obituaries and Facebook pages and by seeking out family members, neighbors and others in the community.  While I respect the wish of accident victims’ families for privacy, I find the apparent official secrecy at this stage somewhat troubling.  It is a week since the explosion and almost three days since family members, sadly, knew the worst.

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By Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from Coal Tattoo

Sometime this morning, investigators from state and federal agencies are expected to gather at the Mine Safety and Health Academy outside Beckley to begin planning their probe of the explosion one week ago that killed 29 coal miners at a Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

Investigators will start examining maps and mine files. They’ll divvy up tasks and chart a course for how to get started on a massive and enormously complex investigation that could take many months.

But there are a few things they won’t do …

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by Kathy Snyder, cross-posted from MineSafetyWatch

All of our hearts are so full this morning with the sad news that the last four missing miners were found dead. In all, 29 miners have died from the explosion.  It is the worst coal mining accident in some 40 years. (The Finley No. 15 & 16 explosion near Hyden, Ky., with 38 dead, was in December 1970. That is so long ago…I was only 18 and don’t even remember anything in the news about it.  In the metal mining sector, the Sunshine silver mine fire claimed 91 lives as recently as 1972.)

Words can’t begin to express the grief.  Nor can words express the respect for family members who held on staunchly to hope and the rescuers who persisted in the face of daunting setbacks.

I feel grateful that at least, it seems none of the lost miners suffered. The explosion apparently was so devastating that their deaths must have been instantaneous.

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Last month, the US Dept of Labor (DOL) and MSHA were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.  Their proclamations said:

“…this law represents a watershed moment in the improvement of occupational health and safety in the United States. It was the precursor to the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which created MSHA, and it was the basis of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970.  The Coal Act forever transformed occupational safety and health in the United States.”

Now, I’m reading news story after news story with these same officials asserting the Mine Act is weak and doesn’t provide MSHA the tools it needs to shut down dangerous workplaces.  The spin machine is kicking into high gear. 

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports that federal inspectors issued closure orders at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010.  The mine was repeatedly cited for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate and for flagrant violations of its very own ventilation plan. (When a mine operator deviates even slightly from its approved plan for ensuring proper airflow in an underground mine, the consequences can be devastating.   Sadly, very sadly, that’s likely a contributing factor in Monday’s explosion that killed 25 coal miners and possibly the four workers who have not yet been found.)  Ward also reports on “talking points” developed by senior DOL officials to help them answer the growing list of questions about its agencies’ enforcement activities at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) in the months and days before the catastrophe.  One talking point says:

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Rescue workers entered the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal this morning to search for the four miners still unaccounted for after Monday’s explosion, but they were called back out when air sampling showed unsafe air quality.

Reporters, members of Congress, and mine-safety advocates are scrutinizing the record of Upper Big Branch, and they’re finding a troubling pattern. Steven Mufson, Jerry Markon, and Ed O’Keefe write in the Washington Post:

The West Virginia mine where at least 25 workers died Monday in an explosion was written up more than 50 times last month for safety violations. Twelve of the citations involved problems with ventilating the mine and preventing a buildup of deadly methane.

… Three miners have died there since 1998, and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Upper Big Branch for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday, proposing $1.89 million in fines, according to federal records.

Sam Hananel and Tim Huber of the Associated Press report that in January, the mine received two of the heftiest fines in history for problems with a ventilation system that caused dirty rather than fresh air to be directed into an escapeway. Mine foreman Terry Moore told MSHA officials that the problem had been going on for three weeks; records show the problem was fixed on the day of the citation, but MSHA considered it an “unwarrantable failure,” the most serious violation type.

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