With the economy still stalled, everyone from President Barack Obama to Florida Gov. Rick Scott is promising to jettison government rules that impede business. But a preliminary report on last year's Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia is a stark reminder why regulation remains essential and in some cases needs to be tightened: The blast that killed 29 miners was preventable had the mine followed federal safety regulations.
Federal mine investigators have concluded that the April 5 explosion occurred due to coal dust in the mine, and was not the result of an unusual infusion of high levels of natural gas, as Massey Energy, the mine's operator, has maintained. Investigators tested samples at hundreds of sites throughout the mine for noncompliant levels of coal dust and found a problem in over 80 percent of the tests, according to Kevin Stricklin, an official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The theory of federal mine administrators is that dull bits on a cutting tool sent out sparks that are supposed to be doused by water sprayers, but those sprayers didn't seem to be functioning properly. The sparks ignited a small amount of methane, which then touched off the coal dust that had been allowed to build up. Other sources for the ignition sparks have not been completely ruled out, but investigators are confident that the coal dust fed the explosion.
Federal officials have documents in which mine workers report that belts and machines needed cleaning due to excess coal dust. And Massey had a record of violating rules governing ventilation and coal dust control. In fact, in the year prior to the explosion, the mine was cited hundreds of times for an array of violations. But legal loopholes let mine operators appeal citations, delaying sanctions and mine closures.
Government regulations exist to protect people from businesses that serve their bottom-line over what is right for their workers, their customers, the environment or the community. The next time critics sweepingly denounce regulations as a pox on economic growth, they should remember the fate of the Upper Big Branch miners.