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Mine Explosion Congress

Families of people killed in work related incidents hold photos of their loved ones on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 27, 2010, during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on mine safety. Jeff Harris, a mine worker from Farley, W.Va., right, looks on at right. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

Don’t forget that today’s Senate hearing wasn’t just about coal miners and mine safety — it was about the safety and health of all American workers.

Today was Worker Memorial Day — and if it was anything like most days in this country, 14 workers won’t make it home because they were killed on the job.

Read more about it from the AFL-CIO and from our friends over at  The Pump Handle blog.

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.

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My good friend from the National Mining Association, Bruce Watzman (a former aide to Rep. Nick Rahall — who knew?) certainly didn’t have the easiest job in the world this afternoon … Watzman was the guy who had to fall on his sword, and go testify in the Senate in defense of an industry where 29 workers were just blown up in a West Virginia coal mine.

But Bruce didn’t disappoint. He offered a mix of sympathy for the victims (and I’m not questioning that this is genuine), a pledge to work harder to improve mining’s safety performance, but at the same time an insistence that there’s no need for Congress to rush into passing new laws or mandating new regulations.

A few highlights from his testimony:

— On whether such terrible disasters can be prevented — “We do not accept his or any mining tragedy as inevitable … preventing a recurrence must include a complete and transparent examination of the actions of all parties … at the very least, we must use Upper Big Branch as a tool to further improve mine safety.”

— On the general safety record of the industry, and what Upper Big Branch tells the public about that record — “American mining has made significant investments in and commitment to mine safety in recent years, and has successfully lowered our rate of injures. Last year was the safest year in history for all of U.S. mining and for coal mining. We understand, however, that this accomplishment offers little solace to the families that lost loved ones. The loss of life at the Upper Big Branch Mine calls our progress into question. We understand that. Only when the lessons learned from this tragedy are clearly identified and woven into the fabric of daily operating procedures can we expect to realize the full results of our commitment to safety.”

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Mine Explosion Congress

Several news organizations earlier today hand-delivered a letter to MSHA chief Joe Main, calling on him to open his agency’s investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster to the press and the public.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press drafted the letter, which sought a public hearing or — in the alternative — that MSHA immediate provide transcripts of investigative interviews to the public and the press.

Among the news outlets and organizations signing the letter were The Charleston Gazette, the Associated Press and the National Newspaper Association.  Not listed in the original letter, but the driving force for years in pushing for MSHA to open up the investigation of this and many other investigations, is Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News.

The letter is available online here, and it said in part:

The public interest in what happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine is monumental. The presence of government investigators cannot substitute for the role of the news media in examining MSHA’s enforcement of the law at the mine, and whether the accident is properly investigated.

… Barring the public from investigative proceedings and withholding the recordings/transcripts until MSHA’s final report is complete poses a grave risk to miner safety and the public’s right to know what happened in West Virginia.

Interestingly, Joe Main — as far as I’m aware — has so far not even responded to repeated requests from Upper Big Branch widows that his agency conduct its investigation in the public. And, Gov. Joe Manchin’s administration has been adament that it will conduct a closed-door investigation — except that Massey lawyers are going to be allowed in the room.

During today’s Senate committee hearing, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts also called on MSHA to conduct a more transparent public investigation — but as far as I can tell from Joe Main’s prepared testimony he has no intention of doing so.

While Main said this:

During our investigation, we will honor our commitment to transparency and openness …

He followed that up with this:

… And we will make the results of our investigation fully public at its conclusion.


My name is Jeffrey Harris. I am a coal miner from Beckley, West Virginia. I have over 30 years of experience as an underground coal miner. For the last four years I have worked at the Harris #1 Mine, which is owned and operated by the Patriot Coal Company. I am a roof bolter, which means my job is to pin the underground roof of the mine to keep it safe. I also have experience doing most of the underground jobs including running equipment, working on the belts, and construction.


Before my current job, I worked for Massey. I worked at the Keppler Mine in Pineville, West Virginia and my job was roof bolter there, too. I worked for Massey for about 6 months in the first half of 2006. Even though I was hired to work at the Keppler Mine, I spent a little time at the Upper Big Branch, and some other Massey operations. When MSHA shut down the Keppler mine because of violations, the Company would send us to other mines to work.


In the end, I quit my job with Massey because I couldn’t take the poor conditions in the mine. I was scared and didn’t feel comfortable working there. I am here to tell you about some of the things I know from my time working at Massey mines; things that aren’t right and which shouldn’t be allowed to continue. I am here because I am concerned that other miners are working in conditions I know aren’t safe.


Sometimes, if we had heard that there was too much gas, we’d be told the problem was taken care of and not to worry. We might not believe them that the problem was fixed, but we had a job to do and we worked. Then when an inspector came by, he would find excess gas and shut us down. This showed us that the Company couldn’t be trusted.


You might wonder why we would work if we thought it was dangerous. The answer is simple: either you worked or you quit. If you complained, you’d be singled out and get fired. Employees were scared, but like me they have to feed their family. Jobs are scarce, and good paying coal mining jobs are hard to come by.


One of the problems at Upper Big Branch Mine was with the air. When we were outside they might talk about safety but as soon as you went underground it was a different story. When we got to a section to mine coal, they’d tear down the ventilation curtain. The air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you. When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain, but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again. Some people would tell the inspectors about these kinds of ventilation changes that were made for the inspectors benefit, but the inspectors told us “we need to catch it,” and that didn’t happen very often.

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Four environmental groups have just filed a major new water pollution lawsuit against Massey Energy.

The suit targets Massey for allegedly violating permit limits for toxic aluminum at as many as 16 mines covered by seven Clean Water Act permits in West Virginia. The suit names Massey subsidiaries Elk Run Coal Co., Independence Coal Co., Marfork Coal Co., Peerless Eagle Coal Coal, and Power Mountain Coal Co.

According to a news release, some of the mines involved are also violating permit limits for other pollutants, including iron, pH, and suspended solids. In total, these mines racked up approximately 3,300 days of permit violations in the period from April 2008 through December 2009.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston and a copy is posted here.

This suit follows a formal notice of intent to sue that was filed in January (see previous posts here and here). It was filed on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch said:

Massey puts profits before people in communities. Massey is an outlaw company that continues to show contempt for the people of Appalachia.

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During a Senate committee hearing this afternoon, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts will call for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster through a public hearing.

As we’ve reported, the UMWA and its mine safety experts are already in the room … several workers at Upper Big Branch have named the union as their “miners’ representative” for the purposes of the investigation. So, Roberts’ call for a public hearing is incredibly significant — and will put even more pressure on the Obama administration to take some action to see to it this probe is more transparent.

In his testimony today, it’s a given that Roberts will have harsh words for the safety record of Massey — a company where 52 miners have died on the job since 2000. And, Roberts will provide some suggestions for how MSHA can deal with a variety of issues, from the backlog of appeals cases to getting more powers to properly investigate mining injuries and deaths.

On the issue of a public investigation, at least one West Virginia blogger has taken me to task for suggesting such a path, calling the idea “foolish” and “self-serving.”  It’s worth noting, though, that along with the UMWA, two of the Upper Big Branch widows have also requested a public investigation.

And if you’re interested in more on the history of how these investigations work, and how the transparency of them has declined greatly over the years, check out my friend Kathy Snyder’s post on her Mine Safety Watch blog.  Unlike others who have offered up their views on this issue, Kathy has many years of experience both as an MSHA employee and later a journalist about how mine disaster investigations have been conducted.


Later this afternoon, MSHA chief Joe Main will appear before a Senate committee to answer questions about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and about how his agency could strengthen enforcement at mines with a history of safety violations.

One key thing to watch is whether Senate Democrats ask Main — a former UMWA safety director appointed by a Democratic president — tough questions like they did of MSHA officials from a Republican administration following the Sago Mine disaster (not to mention Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon). If they don’t … well, then one has to wonder what kind of oversight role Congress is going to play now that doing so means taking on members of their own party.

If it were up to me, these are a few of the things I would ask Joe Main at today’s hearing:

— Why haven’t you responded yet to the requests from Upper Big Branch widows that your agency conduct its investigation into this disaster out in the open, so everyone can see what questions are asked and ensure a full, fair and complete probe?

— Exactly what was MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin heading to Kentucky on April 5 to talk to Massey about? If Massey mines were indeed having safety problems, why didn’t your agency take tougher action prior to an explosion that killed 29 men?

— Regarding your agency’s enforcement scheme, why are you taking the time to go through rulemaking to address the “pattern of violations” system, rather than immediately throwing out existing rules through an Emergency Temporary Standard, or by simply reversing the internal MSHA policies put in place by the Bush administration? Wouldn’t either of these strategies get reforms in place faster?

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This just in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that MSHA inspectors responded to three separate anonymous complaints about hazardous conditions at three coal mines owned by Massey Energy Co. Following each investigation, MSHA ordered the withdrawal of miners from designated areas of those mines and issued multiple citations for serious violations at Spartan Mining Co.’s Road Fork #51 Mine in Wyoming County, W.Va.; Inman Energy’s Randolph Mine in Boone County, W.Va.; and Independence Coal Co.’s Cook Mine in Boone County, W.Va. In an effort to make sure the conditions found during the surprise inspections were not tampered with, MSHA inspectors assumed control of company phone lines at two of the three mines to prevent mine employees from alerting their colleagues underground that MSHA inspectors were on site.

“Each one of these inspections resulting from anonymous complaints reflects a serious disregard for the safety and health of the miners who work at these operations,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “Mine operators who disregard mine regulations and the Mine Act put miners at risk and must be held accountable for their behavior, and MSHA will do everything in its power to make sure that miner safety and health is paramount.

“What’s especially troubling is that one of the complaints came in just days after the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine,” added Assistant Secretary Main.

On March 24, 2010, MSHA received an anonymous hazard complaint reporting that Road Fork #51 Mine was running two continuous miners on a single split of air. The complaint also alleged that the operation was mining into the coal face deeper than its approved plan allowed and had experienced several face methane ignitions that were not reported to MSHA. As a result of the complaint and MSHA’s surprise inspection tactics, the company was caught violating several mine standards. Eight 104(d)(2) withdrawal orders were issued for the mine’s failure to maintain the minimum air quantity ventilation requirements, accumulation of combustible materials and roof control violations. Proper ventilation is required by the law to prevent mine explosions and black lung. In one instance, the operator failed to follow the approved roof control plan by illegally mining 8 feet beyond the allowable depth of 20 feet. Miners were withdrawn from these sections, effectively stopping production, until the mine was re-inspected to make sure the problems were fixed.

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

Amid all the sound and fury over the huge backlog of coal industry appeals that the Obama administration says have tied MSHA’s hands in terms of tougher enforcement actions, one fascinating bit of information hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.

As many things about mine safety are, this tidbit was originally reported by Ellen Smith from Mine Safety and Health News, in this instance back in September 2009 (around the time MSHA was last considering whether to put Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine on the road to tougher enforcement for having a “pattern of violations”).

Odd as it may sound, MSHA actually made a deal back in September 2006 to make it easier for Massey Energy lawyers to file even more appeals of enforcement actions. It was mentioned in a footnote in a ruling by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (See Secretary of Labor, MSHA v. Rockhouse Energy Mining Co., 31 FMSHRC 847 (Aug. 11, 2009) ):

We consider the Secretary’s position in this case in light of the provisions of the “Informal Agreement between Dinsmore & Shohl Attorneys and Department of Labor – MSHA – Attorneys Regarding Matters Involving Massey Energy Company Subsidiaries” dated September 13, 2006. Therein, the Secretary agreed not to object to any motion to reopen a matter in which any Massey Energy subsidiary failed to timely return MSHA Form 1000-179 or inadvertently paid a penalty it intended to contest so long as the motion to reopen is filed within a reasonable time. Thus, we assume that the Secretary is not considering the substantive merits of a motion to reopen from any Massey Energy subsidiary so long as the motion is filed within a reasonable time. Such agreements obviously are not binding on the Commission, and the Secretary’s position in conformance with the agreement in this case has no bearing on our determination on the merits of the operator’s proffered excuse.

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Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

My buddy Davin White has the story in today’s Gazette about developments concerning a possible new school that would get Marsh Fork Elementary out of the way of Massey Energy’s nearby mining, coal processing and slurry disposal operations.

As Davin reports:

State School Building Authority members agreed Monday to give $2.6 million toward a new Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is located just a few hundred feet from a Massey Energy coal silo in Raleigh County.

But the project’s supporters need to come up with another $4 million by June — or risk losing the SBA’s $2.6 million pledge.

Last evening, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued the following response to allegations by Massey Energy that MSHA-ordered ventilation plan changes reduced the amount of fresh air flowing into the Upper Big Branch Mine’s working sections before the April 5 disaster:

Did MSHA require Massey to make changes to the ventilation system from the system in effect in Sept 2009?

Massey made a number of revisions to its ventilation plan between September and January.  In January, MSHA issued unwarrantable failure orders because the system in place could not be effectively maintained by the operator to ventilate the mine.  Massey had one of two choices – either repair the conditions or revise the ventilation plan.  Due to adverse mining conditions (floor heaving, ribs falling in and water accumulating), the operator elected to revise the plan.

Did these changes reduce the fresh air flow to the longwall face?

MSHA’s accident investigation team will thoroughly examine the mine’s ventilation plan and any changes required by MSHA in order to determine the volume of air flow.

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After mine disaster, MSHA considers new rules

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The Obama administration’s new “regulatory agenda” for the Department of Labor is out today, and there are a few new items from the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

— MSHA in October of 2011 plans to publish a “request for information” regarding a potential new rule on company “safety and health management programs” for mines.

— MSHA plans in January 2011 to publish a proposed rule to revise its existing regulations concerning the assessment of civil penalties for violations of health and safety standards.

— MSHA also plans in January 2011 to publish a proposed rule to revise its “pattern of violation” regulations.

— MSHA will in March 2011 publish a proposed rule that will broaden what current regulations require as far as pre-shift safety checks at underground mines.  Currently, MSHA regulations require only that pre-shift examinations look for “hazardous conditions.” MSHA wants to instead require what federal law actually mandates — safety checks for any violations of mandatory health and safety standards.

MSHA has scheduled a “Web Chat” Wednesday at 10 a.m. to discuss its regulatory agenda.

Mine Explosion Massey Management

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va. Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and three of the company’s board members had a press conference this morning in Charleston. Just a day after the memorial ceremony for the Upper Big Branch miners, Massey is launching a full-court press defense of itself.

The bulk of their comments were included in a letter “To Whom it May Concern” that was distributed by Massey’s PR firm to reporters and others just before the press conference, held over at the Charleston Civic Center.

Among the major points:

A summary of the “benefits” Massey is offering to families, without the families having to settle any legal claims against the company. Those benefits include life insurance equal to five times the miners’ annual pay, 20 years of health benefits for surviving spouses, health benefits for surviving children until at least age 19, and a four-year scholarship to any West Virginia college, university or vocational school. Massey also said it will pay surviving spouses the monthly difference between the miners’ base pay and the workers’ compensation benefits the spouse would normally receive.

A defense of the Upper Big Branch Mine’s safety record, which argues that the mine had “about an average number of violations in 2009-2010” though concedes it had “a very large number” of more serious enforcement orders. Massey said it brought in a team to try to fix problems, and that the number of serious enforcement actions dropped by 80 percent between Nov. 1, 2009, and April 1, 2010. “Just days before the explosion, federal mine inspectors commented favorably on conditions in the mine,” the company said.

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Obama Mine Explosion

United Mine Workers Association president Cecil Roberts, left, hugs a family member of a miner during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The United Mine Workers of America announced this morning that several miners at Massey Energy”s Upper Big Branch Mine had designated the union as their miners’ representative for the investigation into the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.

While Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine, federal mine safety law allows miners to appoint anyone they want — a union, their lawyer, whoever — as their representative for safety purposes. Miners’ representatives can accompany government inspectors and have all sorts of rights that help them protect miners’ safety and health.

In its news release, the UMWA said its appointment as miners’ representative had been approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

The UMWA intends to fulfill our responsibility under federal law to the best of our ability. Our representatives delivered the papers designating us as miner’s representative to the mine site late Friday afternoon and did gain access to the property.

Roberts added:

I want to applaud these workers, who have the courage to want representation from an independent organization with 120 years’ experience of working to improve safety and health in all of America’s mines, regardless of union status. We will do everything in our power to live up to the trust they have placed in us. In turn, we have the right to be full participants in this investigation, and we will exercise that right.

For those who don’t remember, the UMWA was also designated as miners’ representative at the non-union Sago Mine four years ago. International Coal Group tried to fight this, but federal courts upheld the rights of the miners. The UMWA and the company both ended up backing down from insisting on taking part in the investigative interviews to avoid a prolonged fight over that and allow the investigation to continue. But, the UMWA did produce a valuable report on Sago that questioned some of the findings of government agencies, including the idea that lightning was to blame for the Sago explosion.

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Coal miners memorial: So many white crosses

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Obama Mine Explosion

As I watched today’s memorial service for the miners who died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, I was taken back to the public hearing on the Sago Disaster four years ago.

I remembered the photos of the 12 miners, hung on the wall behind the podium at the witness tables in the huge gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan in Buckhannon.

And all I kept thinking today was … so many white crosses …

And there were so many photographs. It took so long for all the families to be announced and come in to their seats. It took President Obama so long to read off all the names. It took the mine rescue teams so long to light the cap lamps hung on those white crosses …

Look around your workplace tomorrow and imagine 29 people gone in one instant. That’s what happened at about 3 p.m. on April 5 deep inside the Upper Big Branch Mine, when methane — and probably coal dust — ignited and blew up the mine. Twenty-nine men, all gone … and now, so many white crosses.

I was three years old the last time this many coal miners died at once in our country. That was Dec. 30, 1970, on Hurricane Creek in Kentucky. I hope and pray I won’t ever again have to dig out my list of U.S. coal-mining disasters for a graphic in the Gazette. 

Today’s memorial was fitting in many ways. Gov. Joe Manchin talked about his own family’s experience, now so many years ago, when his uncle died at Farmington. Gov. Manchin, Sen. Rockefeller and others rightly used their speaking time today to remind the nation that we all owe a debt to coal miners and their families, every single time we flip a light switch or boot up our computer:

These were hard working and brave men, and I know you all know it takes brave men to work beneath the surface … I believe that each of those 29 miners like very miner working today, as well as many of their fathers and grandfathers who worked before them have not only a strong commitment to provide a good living for their families, but a deep patriotic pride that the work they did and the energy they produce made America strong and free.

Obama Mine Explosion

Family members of a deceased miner head to their seats after placing a helmet on a cross as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, left, watches during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

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Obama Mine Explosion

Helmets are place on crosses on a table during a memorial service for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine during which President Barack Obama will give the eulogy in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Here is the text of President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010, at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.:

updated:  Here’s the link to my buddy Davin White’s coverage for the Gazette.

To all the families who loved the miners we’ve lost; to all those who called them friends, worked alongside them in the mines, or knew them as neighbors, in Montcoal, Naoma, or Whitesville; in the Coal River Valley and across West Virginia – let me begin by saying that we have been mourning with you throughout these difficult days. Our hearts ache. We also keep in our thoughts the survivors who are recovering and resting in a hospital and at home.

 We are here to memorialize 29 Americans: Carl Acord. Jason Atkins. Christopher Bell. Gregory Steven Brock. Kenneth Allan Chapman. Robert Clark. Charles Timothy Davis. Cory Davis. Michael Lee Elswick. William I. Griffith. Steven Harrah. Edward Dean Jones. Richard K. Lane. William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper. Howard D. Payne. Dillard Earl Persinger. Joel R. Price. Deward Scott. Gary Quarles. Grover Dale Skeens. Benny Willingham. Ricky Workman.

Nothing I say can fill the hole they leave in your hearts; the absence they leave in your lives. If any comfort can be found, it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, mends our broken hearts, and eases our mourning souls.

Even as we mourn 29 lives lost, we also remember 29 lives lived. Up at 4:30, 5 at the latest, they began their day, as they worked, in darkness. In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hour-long journey, 5 miles into the mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in.

Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what we so often take for granted: the electricity that lights up convention centers like this; that lights up our churches and homes, our schools and offices; the energy that powers our country and the world.

Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day.

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The White House has released some excerpts of the eulogy President Barack Obama will deliver today at the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster memorial service in Beckley:

All the hard work. All the hardship. All the time spent underground. It was all for their families. For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities they never knew; and enjoy retirement with their wives. It was all in the hopes of something better. These miners lived – as they died – in pursuit of the American dream.

… In the days following the disaster, emails and letters poured into the White House. Postmarked from different places, they often begin the same way: “I am proud to be from a family of miners,” “I am the son of a coal miner,” “I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.” They ask me to keep our miners in my thoughts. Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. Then, they make a simple plea: don’t let this happen again.

We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans.

The event starts at 3:30 p.m., and it appears that it will be carried live on C-SPAN and with streaming video by a number of local stations, such as WSAZ, and also by West Virginia MetroNews.


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.



Obama Mine Safety

Apparently, some folks thought there was something terribly controversial about President Barack Obama’s statements regarding the likely cause of the mine disaster that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5.

And sure, the investigation is just beginning … it will be a long time before complete answers about what ignited the blast are available, before detailed reports are issued by various investigators.

But folks who are claiming Obama was too quick with his remarks are missing the point that the president made very clearly (based, I might add, on a preliminary report from the experts at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration).

What is that point?

Mine explosions are preventable.

I’ve quoted before from this preliminary report, which was presented to President Obama in a rare Oval Office meeting focused on worker safety issues:

… Most mine explosions are caused by the combustion of accumulations of methane, combined with combustible coal dust mixed with air. Methane naturally occurs in coal seams, and coal dust is generated from the mining process.

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