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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.

Why?

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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In August of 1990, I drove from my hometown in the Detroit suburbs to interview for a job at OSHA headquarters (HQ) in Washington, DC.   I had never worked for a federal agency, let alone an important one like OSHA.  I was eager to show my prospective boss that I was interested in worker health and safety.  (Even though my Republican father considered OSHA a four-letter word.)  

To prepare for my interview with Ms. Ruth Knight and Mr. Frank Frodyma, I searched all the federal depository libraries in southeastern Michigan for any collections of GAO reports on OSHA.  In those pre-Internet days, these reports were hard to find.  I was only able to locate one (in the Wayne State University Labor Studies program collection); it was a report assessing the accuracy of employer injury and illness records. (HRD-89-23, December 30, 1988.)  

At some opportune time during my interview with Ms. Ruth Knight, I mentioned that I had read the GAO report about employer records of injuries.  She seemed impressed and proceeded to tell me that it was her exact office that was responsible for coordinating with GAO on their studies.  Ms. Knight also mentioned that GAO had been engaged recently in a special effort that involved a survey of OSHA’s inspectors.  (She called them CSHO’s (compliance safety and health officers.)  It was the first time I heard that term; it didn’t appear in the 1988 GAO report I’d read.)  She told me that if I was hired (not a sure thing because there was a huge budget battle going on that year,) I would probably have an opportunity to sit in, with more seasoned staff in the office, on an opening or closing meeting with GAO.  (Wow! I thought to myself.)   The weeks passed, the months passed, and finally I heard from OSHA’s human resources office that I was selected for the job.  Start date: mid-January 1991.  Bye-bye Mayor Coleman Young.  Hello Mayor Marion Barry.

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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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US Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main marked the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine H&S Act this week.   The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward offers his perspective on the event in two posts published at Coal Tattoo.

Story 1:  MSHA celebrates landmark mine safety law, but when will Obama administration tighten dust limits to really end deadly black lung disease?

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

Early this afternoon, officials from the U.S. Department of Labor and its  Mine Safety and Health Administration will gather in Washington for a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Wait … The 40th anniversary? Wasn’t that last year? Well, yes. The law was signed on Dec. 30, 1969. But, MSHA’s celebration is officially to mark the effective date of the law, which for most provisions was March 30, 2010.

Wouldn’t today’s event be a great opportunity for the Obama administration to make some major announcement … Oh, like maybe that MSHA was going to get back on track with its initial promise to tighten the legal limit on coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease?

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“More than four years after the Sago Mine disaster, fewer than 1 of every 10 underground coal mines in the U.S. has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire.”

That’s the lead sentence in “Four years after Sago, few mines have new communications gear,” by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, who was reporting on a presentation made by MSHA officials at an “MSHA Communications & Tracking Workshop” held on Wed, March 27 in Wheeling WV.    Ward’s story continues:

“Nationwide, 415 active underground mines are required to have added this equipment. But, according to MSHA’s most recent count, only 34 have such equipment installed and fully operational. That’s a little more than 8 percent, according to the MSHA data.”

Only 34 out of 415 mines nationwide??  I suspected that some mine operators were falling behind on these installations, but 34 out of 415??  That’s appalling.  

But it gets worse.

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The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. caused my jaw to drop several times this morning with his story “Mine hailed as model of safety faces federal probe.”  At the Patriot Coal company’s Federal No. 2 mine—the underground coal mine that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis visited in August 2009—a foreman has admitted to falsifying records on levels of explosive gases AND  he asserts that he was forced by upper management to do so.   The kernels of information assembled by Ken Ward on the alleged safety and organizational problems at Federal No 2 are remarkable by themselves, but there was one other nugget in his story that really caught my eye:

“An MSHA official at the district office in Morgantown [WV] refused to comment and hung up on a reporter.”

Hung up on a reporter?   ….a reporter whose name is Ken Ward Jr.? 

Lesson #1 to staff at MSHA and OSHA: Don’t hang up on Ken Ward Jr.

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