Three months after an underground explosion killed 29 West Virginia coal miners, the mine's operator is still making excuses. The mine's chief executive claimed Thursday that a surge of methane gas may have been uncontrollable, and he contended Massey Energy Co. wanted to make the mine safer but the government would not allow it. That contradicts internal government memos and news reports of the mine operator's indifferent attitude toward safety, and Congress should proceed with legislation to strengthen mine safety rules.
Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration have said they think a combination of methane and coal dust likely caused the April explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. Massey chief executive Don Blankenship claimed Thursday that federal regulators would not allow a ventilation plan in the mine that Massey thought was safer. But a government memo obtained by the Associated Press says Massey wanted to reduce the air in areas of the mine where work was being done and direct it to another area to mine more coal. And there is more compelling evidence that the mine operator did not make safety a priority.
A report by National Public Radio finds that methane detectors were commonly bypassed at the Upper Big Branch. The very machines that protected miners from the combustible combination of methane, coal dust and sparks were purposely disabled in order to continue mine operations. If that isn't asking for lethal consequences, what is?
Methane is among a mine's deadliest offerings. But in interviews with a number of Upper Big Branch miners, NPR found that when a methane detector malfunctioned it was routine to bridge or circumvent it so that cutting coal could continue. One miner said that in the 13 years he spent at the Upper Big Branch, he had seen methane detectors disabled "50 to 60 times."
In the last decade, 600 miners have died in the nation's mines, with the Upper Big Branch disaster being the worst in 40 years. Companies such as Massey, which had racked up hundreds of safety violations, were able to avoid threats of being closed down by dragging out the appeals process.
A House committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would strengthen the ability of federal regulators to shut down mines that demonstrate a "pattern of violations." Criminal and civil penalties would be increased, and it would put new protections in place for whistle-blowers. Massey has been accused of retaliation against miners who went public with safety problems at the Upper Big Branch.
The Upper Big Branch disaster exposes a regulatory scheme that is insufficient to keep miners safe underground. Congress should move quickly to correct the situation before more lives are lost.