Sen. Byrd speaks on coal-mine safety: After Sago and Aracoma, plenty of blame to go around

June 29, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Here’s a speech Sen. Robert C. Byrd gave after the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters of 2006:

Madam President, while the Senate was in recess, the State of West Virginia lost 14 proud sons.

On January 2, 13 hard-working, God-fearing men were simply earning their daily bread at the Sago coal mine in Upshur County, WV, when an explosion killed 1 man and trapped 12 others 260 feet below its surface. For 41 long hours, these men waited for help. They waited, they waited, they waited, and they prayed. They wrote farewell messages to their loved ones. How gripping. They waited as the air they breathed gave out and their lungs filled with toxic gases.

Above the ground, we all prayed for a miracle such as we had enjoyed with the nine miners who had been trapped at the mine at Quecreek, PA, in 2002 and were found alive. But this time, there was only one miracle. My wife Erma and I, like many others in my great State of West Virginia, continue to pray for the recovery of the sole survivor of the Sago explosion, Mr. Randal McCloy, Jr. But tragically, there were no miracles for Tom Anderson, Alva Bennett, Jim Bennett, Jerry Groves, George “Junior” Hammer, Terry Helms, Jesse Jones, David Lewis, Martin Toler, Jr., Fred Ware, Jr., Jackie Weaver, and Marshall Winans. Once again, a small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and an entire State wept with them.

And then, incredibly, 17 days later, a mine fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County, WV, trapping two miners underground. In shock and disbelief, the State once again fell to its knees and prayed and pleaded for a miracle. Forty hours later, we learned that two more miners–Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield–had perished. Another small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and again an entire State wept with them.

Once again, the national media rushed in to report the disaster to the world. Once again, editorials filled newspapers across the country decrying the dangers of mining coal, denouncing the callousness of coal companies, and questioning the commitment of State and Federal officials to mine safety.

Madam President, as a child of the Appalachian coalfields, as the son of a West Virginia coal miner, as a U.S. Senator representing one of the most important coal-producing States in the Nation, let me say I have seen it all before. Yes, I have seen it all before.

First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster. But not this time.

Let me say that this U.S. Senator and the West Virginia delegation in the House and in the Senate will do all that we can to prevent that. There is blame to be assessed in the wake of these tragedies and plenty of it to go around.

Let us begin with the coal company that operated the Sago mine, which had been issued 276 safety and health violations in 2004 and 2005. Let me try to put that into perspective. Could any automobile driver or any truckdriver rack up 276 tickets for reckless driving and still keep a license? What if someone had 276 mistakes on a tax return? One can bet that taxpayer would be looking at serious penalties and possibly time in a Federal prison. But here was a coal company with 276 Federal mine safety violations still operating. While some of these were minor transgressions, too many of them were “significant and substantial” or, simply put, very serious, and yet business went on as usual. It is quite possible that not one of these specific violations contributed to the explosion at Sago. But 276 violations is certainly indicative of a company’s sloppy attention toward the well-being of its employees. That should be obvious on its face.

What about the agency that is responsible for making sure that coal operators comply with the spirit and the letter of the law–the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Let me be clear that I have nothing but praise for the brave rescue teams that went into the Sago and Alma mines. Anybody who has been around a mine explosion knows the dangers that still lurk not just hours but days after such an accident. To go into a mine after a disaster, after an explosion, and to risk one’s own life in an effort to save other lives, as these rescuers do, takes guts. It takes a love for one’s fellow man.

Coal miners are a special breed. I have seen these miners go into a mine after an explosion, risking their own lives, realizing that another explosion might occur and another tragedy would follow in the wake of the first tragedy.

Yes, MSHA is filled with good, well-intentioned, and dedicated professionals, but something is terribly wrong with the leadership at MSHA.

Consider that for 4 straight years, President Bush has proposed to cut the budget for coal safety enforcement below the level enacted by Congress the previous year, and for 4 straight years the Congress has had to struggle to partially restore those cuts. Some 190 coal enforcement personnel have been lost over the last 4 years through attrition, and they have not been replaced. The priorities reflected by the Bush administration through MSHA’s budget certainly are not indicative of a proper concern for the health and safety of miners.

On the day of the Sago disaster, 2 hours went by–2 hours, with 60 golden minutes each, went by–before MSHA even knew about the explosion. It took another 2 hours before MSHA personnel arrived at the scene. It took 1 1/2 hours before the rescue teams arrived. Another 5 hours passed before the first team entered the mine. The Mine Act requires that rescue teams be available to mines in the event of an emergency, and yet it took 10 1/2 hours before the first rescue team began its effort at Sago.

A short 2 weeks later, similar horrors emerged from a second tragedy at the Aracoma Alma mine and, again, MSHA did not know of the incident for 2 1/2 hours. Something is incredibly wrong. It is obvious something is very, very wrong at MSHA. The rescue procedures for miners are woefully inadequate.

The Sago mine had been cited for 276 violations over the past 2 years, and yet the mine operator never paid a fine larger than $440 and often only paid a minimal $60 fine. Few people realize that even when a fine is assessed, the coal operator can negotiate the fine to a piddling amount.

Congress recognized a long time ago that mine safety and health depends on financial penalties that “make it more economical for an operator to comply” with the law “than it is to pay the penalties assessed and continue to operate while not in compliance.” Clearly, the 276 penalties assessed–whatever the amount of the fine–weren’t enough to convince this company to take a hard look at safety for its employees.

The Sago mine was a habitual violator–a habitual violator. It was being assessed only the minimum penalties allowed by the law. The maximum penalty could be $220,000 or $1 million, but it makes no difference unless MSHA is willing to impose and collect that maximum amount. Habitual violators must be brought to a state of fearing the consequences of a heavy fine to be paid when assessed. We have to get tough about enforcing the law.

At MSHA, complacent attitudes and arrogance rule at the top. At the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee hearing on Monday, Acting MSHA Secretary David Dye was asked directly about the issue of communications technology: Why are the miners trapped underground not able to communicate with the rescue teams, and can rescue teams better locate trapped miners? Dye was asked directly if technology exists to correct these problems, and he stated for the record that such technology did not exist.

Now get that. Let me say that again. At this hearing, conducted by one of the finest Senators on either side of the aisle here, Republican Senator Specter of Pennsylvania, at that record hearing, Acting MSHA Secretary David Dye was asked directly about the issue of communications technology: Why are the miners trapped underground not able to communicate with the rescue teams, and can rescue teams

better locate trapped miners? Dye was asked directly if technology exists to correct these problems, and he stated for the record that such technology did not exist.

How about that. That statement proved to be utterly, utterly, utterly false. Minutes later, after Dye was asked if such technology existed, the subcommittee heard from a former MSHA Secretary, Davitt McAteer, who verified that such communications technology certainly does exist, and Mr. McAteer put tracking and communications devices on the table–on the table–right in front of the subcommittee.

What does that say about the people leading this agency when they don’t even know about the existence of lifesaving technology that ought to be in the mines? What does that say? Shame, shame on them. I am talking about the people leading the agency when they testified that they don’t even know about the existence of lifesaving technology that ought to be in the mines. Why is the Acting Administrator of MSHA, charged with protecting the health and safety of coal miners, so abysmally ignorant of these technologies? The families of these miners and the Members of this Congress are owed an explanation.

In this day and age of cell phones, BlackBerrys, and text messaging, it is absolutely unacceptable that safe telecommunications technology was not available to the Sago and Alma miners. These weaknesses in mine emergency preparedness are unacceptable. Where is MSHA? Repeating the first question that was ever asked in the history of mankind when God sought Adam in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. God said: Adam, where art thou? Well, where was MSHA? Where was MSHA? What is that agency waiting for?

Ask the leadership at MSHA. At Sago and Alma, we have seen the disastrous results of complacent attitudes at the top–at the top. A quick look at the list of rules approved and scuttled at MSHA in recent years–from regulations governing mine rescue teams to the use of belt entries for ventilation to inspection procedures to emergency breathing equipment to escape routes, any one of which might figure into the deaths and disasters at the Sago and Alma mines–suggest that something, something, something is terribly wrong. Something is terribly, terribly, terribly wrong, and it ought to be fixed.

In 1995, labor and industry jointly proposed a number of initiatives on mine emergency preparedness to improve mine rescue technology and communications. Perhaps one of the most important was to address the dwindling number of mine rescue teams. MSHA has ignored the report and its recommendations. In 2003, the General Accountability Office made a list of recommendations to the Secretary of Labor to help MSHA protect the safety and health of the miners. What happened? MSHA ignored the recommendation. Shame, shame.

Our Nation’s coal miners are vital to our national economy. During World War I, coal miners put in long, brutal

hours to make sure that the Nation had coal to heat our homes, power our factories, and fuel our battleships. In World War II, American coal miners again provided the energy to replace the oil that was lost with the outbreak of that global conflict. During the oil boycott-induced energy crisis of the 1970s, our Nation once again called upon–yes, our Nation once again turned, yes, to the coal miners to bail the Nation out of trouble, and the coal miners did.

Coal produces over half of the electricity we use every day in these United States. Here is an example of it all around the ceiling here, the lights that are burning making it bright as day right here in this Chamber. That is coal. That is energy that comes from coal, burning coal–coal that is produced by hard, backbreaking labor in the dangerous mines. Coal is dug out, scratched out by the coal miner.

So today America’s coal miners provide the electricity–the electricity right here–the electricity that lights the streets of Washington, New York City, Sacramento, and all over this country, and it heats our homes in winter, lights our homes in summer.

Those coal miners could provide the key to our Nation’s future energy security. You can bet on those coal miners–and they are of a different breed, a special breed. If we made better use of this abundant natural resource, coal, we could reduce our country’s dangerous dependency on foreign oil.

We could make ourselves less dependent on the rule of despots, and less of a target for the fanatics and the terrorists of the Middle East.

God blessed our country. Yes, the Almighty who was there at the beginning blessed our Nation, especially West Virginia with an abundance of coal, and God provided us with the good, the brave, the hard-working coal miners to dig that coal and bring it from the Earth, the bowels, the dark, the black, the darkness. The coal miners have never failed our Nation.

I know. I grew up in a coal miner’s home. I married a coal miner’s daughter. Her brother-in-law died from black lung. His father was killed under a slate fall.

We have lived–my family has lived–with coal miners. We have coal miners in our families. We have lost loved ones.

The test of a great country such as ours is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk, whether it be innocent children who need guarding from hunger and disease or our elderly and sick who cannot afford medication. Those men and women who bravely labor in such dangerous occupations as coal mining to provide our country with critical energy should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety. That is why MSHA exists. That is why we created MSHA. That is why I was here when that agency was created. But MSHA is just a paper tiger without aggressive leadership. If we are truly a moral nation, and I believe that we should be, moral values must be reflected in government agencies that are charged with protecting the lives of our citizens. The last thing that we need is ho hum, arrogant attitudes from this administration and its officials. Such calumny abuses the public trust and results in the kind of loss of life that so grieves families today in Upshur and Logan Counties and all across my home State of West Virginia.

3 Responses to “Sen. Byrd speaks on coal-mine safety: After Sago and Aracoma, plenty of blame to go around”

  1. I loved and respected Senator Byrd.
    I thought of him as a father figure; a protector, who would stand by you and guide you along through thick and thin. To me he was that image of a strong man who would go up against the majority even if it made him less popular.

    I believe he loved his state of West Virginia and all the people who live in West Virginia.

  2. Thomas Rodd says:

    Senator Byrd’s life and career were remarkable, filled with great positive achievements and great negative ones as well. Historians will have a great time sorting it all out.

    Today, we celebrate the enormous good he did. “De mortuis, nil nisi bonum.”

    For me, the bonum includes his forceful and artful use of language, which, as Ken Ward’s recent posts illustrate, was head and shoulders above the pap we ordinarily get from politicians.

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