Mine safety update: It’s not just about Massey and the backlog of industry appeals

April 24, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


We’ve posted online a long story I did for tomorrow morning’s Sunday Gazette-Mail. It examines the narrative that’s developed over the last three weeks that the nation’s mine safety problems are mostly about one renegade company and the backlog of industry appeals MSHA says is making its job of stepped up enforcement tough.

The story is online here.

It’s worth noting that the Labor Department’s preliminary report to President Obama mentioned a variety of other issues — such as giving more powers to MSHA, toughening criminal penalties for mine safety violations, and empowering miners to have a greater say in workplace protections.

As President Obama said in his Rose Garden remarks on mine safety:

… This isn’t just about a single mine. It’s about all of our mines. The safety record at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine was troubling. And it’s clear that while there are many responsible companies, far too many mines aren’t doing enough to protect their workers’ safety.

I think we all understand that underground coal mining is, by its very nature, dangerous. Every miner and every mining family understands this. But we know what can cause mine explosions, and we know how to prevent them. I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business. We can’t eliminate chance completely from mining any more than we can from life itself. But if a tragedy can be prevented, it must be prevented. That’s the responsibility of mine operators. That’s the responsibility of government. And that is the responsibility that we’re all going to have to work together to meet in the weeks and months to come.



2 Responses to “Mine safety update: It’s not just about Massey and the backlog of industry appeals”

  1. clay ton says:

    Federal and state agencies survive administrations; they are the bureaucracies, with their appendages of ‘insiders’ like stepchildren handed from administration to administration. Officials in these agencies often migrate between private sector and government jobs. Our ‘watchdog’ agencies sometimes fall short of their intended goals, but imagine how chaotic life would be without some trained oversight in commerce.

    Ronald Reagan wanted to do away with watchdog agencies decrying them as wasteful and inefficient. He said ‘we don’t need watchdog agencies, the businessman is moral’. Alan Greenspan told us after the financial collapse he did calculate human greed and immortality into his formulas. A man that strives to be moral needs a book of religious doctrine or an oral traditional to guide him towards that path of perfection. A business is a collection of interests, each with defined goals all seeking the path of least resistance towards fruition. Morality does not have to be a part of a business plan, e.g. house of prostitution, gambling casino, etc. Businesses and governments need oversight for the protection of citizens, consumers, workers, taxpayers and the environment.

    Remove the politics for personal gain from health and safety regulation. Currently due to the unique position of coal in the production of 50% of the country’s electricity, our nations dependency on this source of energy requires an uninterrupted supply be assured. To that end all aspects of the coal industry should be kept healthy and functioning to the best of our ability. Coal’s relationship in America is not casual; it’s a marriage that requires fidelity. MET coal the type used in steel manufacture has strategic value and is a part of our nations security and self reliance. Coal is a part of our national treasure, big, big business.

    By adding a political agenda to mine safety enforcement the G.W. Bush appointees Stanley C. Suboleski, Jim Nussle and Michael Duffy all Republican Party politicians helped shape mining safety enforcement, which ultimately led to the tragic event that killed 29 at UBB on 4/5/10. These safety agency political appointees repaid the mining industry lobbyists who gave the Republican Party millions of dollars in contributions to help keep costs down and profits up. While government agencies were stymied with paperwork backlogs, these skillful lawyers, industry and government veterans with a political agenda were able to triumph their cause at the expense of mine safety enforcement. http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_14945069?nclick_check=1

    Here with no-spin is my overview of coal mining safety in American. It’s has been around for over one hundred years and it was promulgated by miners and supported by intelligent mine operators. Ken Ward Jr. says “most miners who die on the job are not killed in huge explosions, fires or underground floods. They die one at a time, crushed by heavy equipment; ground up by runaway machinery, buried beneath collapsed mine roofs. Almost every time — in nine out of 10 deaths, according to MSHA reports — miner deaths could have been avoided if the operators they worked for had complied with the law.”

    Ironically in many areas of mine safety little seems to have changed since the early 20th century. Dangerous methane is often neglected rather than exploited. The first methane safety detection device came to coal mining England in 1820. Coalbed methane management is now a well recognized highly sophisticated international business; methane is money. Some mining companies invest in required R & D and profit from advanced forms of methane collection. http://www.epa.gov/cmop/ Methane has a 130-octane rating, it burns clean and allowing it to escape into the atmosphere damages the environment, that’s if you believe in global warming. It appears Massey Energy did not engage in any modern forms of methane management at the notoriously gassy Upper Big Branch mine that exploded on 4/5/10.

    The original American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which was forced to break up in 1984, always had justifiably high standards known as the five 9’s. The company through it’s Bell System Practices, (BSP’s) target for connectivity was 99.999%. Our huge nation was the first in the world to be ‘wired’. Our success, as a nation was tied to and dependent upon reliable, safe communications availability. All critical communications channels had redundant paths to assure circuit integrity. The Communications Workers of America union helped accomplish this national phenomenon.

    Today in a post phone company monopoly environment it is up to the needs and budget of the user of a given communications path to assure their own uninterrupted communications. Be assured that better banks and brokerage houses all have two or more circuits transmitting the same data files during all important transactions, one being the back up, these extra circuits often provided by different vendors.

    Mine safety is monitored by different entities by location, e.g. UBB, in WV is monitored by the state of WV, the Federal MSHA, but no worker organization because we are informed, workers there were threatened with shut down if they brought in the union. The missing link for mine safety is input from the man in the mine, and with no ‘body politic’, a miners only remedy a 911 (emergency) call which if discovered could cause job loss and financial ruin in this job impoverished coal region where Massey Energy and CEO Blankenship have operated with a discernible level of impunity.

    It has been repeatedly pointed out that enforcement agencies cannot be in the mines at all times. It is up to the miners and the companies who run the mines to keep the mines safe. With an ‘enforcement hostile’, non-union coal company, to assure mine safety, miners need an uninterrupted path of communications to an accountable ‘body’ that will resolve a perceived problem. Where possible, a miners union could provide that accountability circuit. In lieu of a union, when workers are not represented, a miner’s interest group (MIG) could provide a communications circuit to alert enforcement agencies, follow complaints and serve as a redundant path to maintain accountability and mine safety.
    An empowered MIG should be able to bring suit in the event of agency, or company failure.

    In our electronic age, an accountable redundant mine safety management scheme might be reinvented between the state and federal government agencies and miners organizations. Each officiating body would have copies of all violations issued to a given mine with a ‘drop dead date’ enforcement verification accompanied with a mandatory confirmation ‘handshake’. e.g. State of WV agency issues a violation to ‘mine x’, that notice is sent to MSHA and miners interest group (MIG). With three different entities looking at the same data, patterns of violations will become obvious, and remediation greatly enhanced. Finally a violations clearinghouse must ‘sign off’ on every violation according to predetermined time frames. The clearinghouse is data entries project, simply mechanical reporting and verifying, like an alarm clock that is reset upon the three independent ‘agency’ ‘handshakes’. In addition, all mine safety violation enforcement information should be made public and available on the Internet.

    Contact me at coallawreview@yahoo.com

  2. rhmooney3 says:

    We need to look ahead and prepare for the next coal mining disasters — more will come.

    It’s been shown that drilling access above the underground workings is very important as are listening/locating devices within the mines right after disasters strike.

    MSHA now considers a disaster to be five deaths instead of three — should that number be raised even more?

    Should there be a surcharge on electric bills to cover disaster expenses? For sure, states should not have to cover the expenses that belong to all of us.

    Today, the U.S. Senate will hold a hearing on mine safety. How and when should such post-disaster hearings be held so as to be really meaningful?

    Should miners have early retirements like military and law enforcement employees do?

    MSHA seem to have difficulties in getting the nitrogen to put out the mine fire. Should there be a nationwide program addressing it?

    Should family members not be allowed to work together on the same shifts?

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