Coal Tattoo

Never again: Learning from Upper Big Branch

Ambulances leave the Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. after it was announced early Saturday, April 10, 2010 that rescue workers located the four missing bodies deep in the West Virginia coal mine, dashing any faint hopes of finding more survivors of a deadly explosion that has claimed 29 lives, the worst U.S. mining disaster in a generation. (AP Photo/Bob Bird)

Stay tuned today to hear a lot of political leaders talking about coal miners … They’re going to talk about how hard working miners are, and how they put their lives on the line to provide electricity and put food on table for their families. They’re going to talk about how we need to remember and honor the dead, and about how these men (well, mostly men) who go underground are a special breed.

All those things are true.

But when you hear one of these political leaders — whether it’s Sen. Joe Manchin or Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito — try to nose your way in there and ask them exactly what they’ve done in the last year to make sure that no family every has go to through what 29 families have been forced to face over the last year.

The media coverage has been pretty solid, or at least uniform, on this issue over the last several days, reporting in outlet after outlet about how neither the West Virginia Legislature nor the U.S. Congress has found the time, political will or inclination to pass any new mine safety legislation. Special investigator Davitt McAteer gave then-Gov. Manchin some proposals not long after the mine blew up. Manchin wasn’t interested. Neither was Tomblin.  Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wrote a bill based in part on the recommendations of Upper Big Branch miners and families. Congressional Republicans blocked it.

When you listen to the news or watch tonight’s memorial service, listen closely. See if a politician talks about how we need to remember that coal mining is dangerous work or if they say there’s just no excuse for someone getting killed just for coming to work in the morning.

In the halls of Congress, the debate is a partisan one, over whether more laws are needed or whether MSHA just needs to be made to enforce the ones already on the books. But is this a false choice? Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and son of a coal miner, said last week that it was:

Some commentators have suggested that there is a dichotomy in Congress between those who believe that MSHA needs expanded powers, and those who believe that MSHA has all the powers it needs but just isn’t using them effectively. I think that’s exactly the wrong way to look at the issue. The question is not: did or didn’t MSHA have the tools to prevent Upper Big Branch. The question is: what do all of us need to do to prevent the next disaster? I have never believed that either MSHA needs to fix the regulatory process or we need to pass new mine safety legislation. That is a false choice. Instead, we need to both improve the regulatory structure and pass legislation to improve mine safety.

But if you love a coal miner, or just care about protecting them, you might think twice about letting the Democrats off too easy here. Remember that Harkin and other Democrats in the Senate and House last month twice tried to turn congressional hearings into love-fests (see here and here) for MSHA chief Joe Main. The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd certainly wouldn’t have allowed partisan politics to keep him from pressing the Obama administration for answers about MSHA’s own missteps prior to the disaster.

And when you hear folks from the coal industry talk, it might be worth listening not only to see if they try to dismiss mine disasters like Upper Big Branch as natural disasters. Ask them if they think a few mining deaths are the inevitable result of a dangerous business, or if they think it’s way past time for the industry to set a real goal of zero — zero death, zero injuries and zero violations of government safety standards.