Coal Tattoo

There were plenty of fireworks at today’s mine safety hearing in the Senate, as UMWA President Cecil Roberts blasted his longtime enemies: Don Blankenship and Massey Energy.

But there was one witness who, while he didn’t cause much commotion or get asked many questions, had some interesting things to say: Wes Addington, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Kentucky.

Check out his prepared testimony here.

I thought Wes had the best line of the whole hearing:

The Massey Disaster at Upper Big Branch now becomes synomymous with death in the coal mines like the four recent disasters before it: Crandall Canyon, Darby, Aracoma and Sago.

All were preventable.

Five coal mining disasters in barely four years is not only a crisis, it is a national disgrace.

Among other things, Wes made mention of the fascinating fact that MSHA actually made a deal with Massey four years ago to help the company be able to appeal more citations and orders — thus aiding in the clogging of the agency’s enforcement system.

But he also offered an important take on how tough it is for coal miners to report unsafe working conditions, and stand up for themselve in an industry where production is often seen as taking priority over safety:

Unfortunately, in too many mines, miners that complain about unsafe conditions are harassed, interfered with or even discharged. Many miners feel that those who do complain aren’t supported or protected to the degree envisioned under the Mine Act.

Wes urged MSHA to do a better job of protecting miners who do complain about safety conditions, and suggested that Congress might help protect workers (especially at non-union operations) by requiring every working coal mine to have an appointed “Miners’ Representative” who would have the responsibility and authority to look out for his fellow miners. He also suggested that MSHA do a better job of training miners to understand their rights — something that agency has previously refused to do.

And, Wes also highlighted a request that he and longtime mine safety advocated Tony Oppegard previous filed with MSHA chief Joe Main asking the agency to immediately abandon its existing “pattern of violations” regulations … and noted that the ongoing discussion of the backlog of industry appeals is really “a red herring” that is not the root of the problem with the “pattern of violations” system:

Never mind that the backlog has only existed for a couple of the 33 years the “pattern of violations” provision has been on the books … Simply, MSHA has not used the statutory tools available in the Mine Act to aggressively address problem mines.

He concluded:

Once again, we as a nation are reeling from another mine disaster. However, Congress has an opportunity to enact changes that can ensure the protection of today’s miners and prevent future generations of mining families from suffering like too many families have over the years.