Coal Tattoo

N.Y. Times: The Truth about Upper Big Branch?

A sign along the road to the Upper Big Branch Mine. Photo by Jim Beck, courtesy of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.

The editorial in today’s New York Times concludes:

Massey has denied culpability and attributed the explosion to an unpreventable surge of underground methane gas. Investigators rejected that claim and the state report convincingly traces the disaster through a chain of neglect, while accusing the company of building “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

A federal investigation has already led to the criminal indictment of the mine’s security chief, who was charged with lying to federal investigators and attempting to dispose of evidence. The Obama administration has toughened regulatory oversight, demanding rigorous inspections and heavy penalties for offending mining companies. But the state report underlines the urgent need for far stronger safety laws. House Republicans and coal-state Democrats dedicated to Big Coal have refused to move on any sensible legislation.

Miners need whistle-blower protection to raise the alarm about dangerous conditions without fear of losing their livelihoods. Congress should make it a felony to alert managers that mine inspectors are on the way. Serial violators like Massey must face the strongest penalties, and the cynical gaming of safety violations with endless appeals must finally end. Hesitant lawmakers claim they need a fuller sense of what happened in the tragedy. They should face up to the 126-page report’s finding that the Upper Big Branch tragedy is a “tale of hubris.”

A couple points worth mentioning, though.

First, I’m not sure which coal-state Democrats the Times is talking about.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., represents our state’s 3rd congressional district, where the disaster occurred. Rep. Rahall is a co-sponsor of Rep. George Miller’s Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2011. In a statement yesterday, Rep. Rahall said:

I am cosponsoring legislation to help close loopholes that the report notes were exploited by Massey, and I will be getting more details on the document’s 52 recommendations to see what further can and should be done through Congressional action.

A sign along the road to the Upper Big Branch Mine. Photo by Jim Beck, courtesy of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.

And in the Senate, the companion bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va. And Manchin, despite his general allegiance to whatever the coal industry wants, was the person who appointed Davitt McAteer to do this independent investigation in the first place.  Sen. Manchin said yesterday:

The recommendations of the report will provide a blueprint going forward so that no other miners will be put in jeopardy and no other families will have to endure a preventable tragedy. I hope all West Virginians will be united with me in a commitment to work together to enact the right reforms to prioritize worker safety and make sure that no company can put profits ahead of lives.

And Sen. Rockefeller said:

My hope today is for this report to serve as a fresh wakeup call to Congress – unless we act now to give federal mine safety inspectors the additional tools they need and are asking for, a few bad operators will continue to make this industry more dangerous than it has to be.

Ironically, the Times editorial also suffers from the same refusal to confront the problems at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration that has led these coal-state Democrats to focus almost entirely on trying to pass a new law, ignoring any effort to demand that MSHA do more with its existing authorities.

Interestingly, Davitt McAteer said during his press conference yesterday that MSHA could have put a stop to the egregious safety problems that led to the Upper Big Branch Disaster without any new legislation from Congress.

The independent investigation team’s report recounted a variety of ways in which MSHA didn’t use all of the tools available to it prior to April 5, 2010 — many of them documented previously here on Coal Tattoo, such as allowing a computer glitch to keep Upper Big Branch off the list of mines cited for a “pattern of violations” and not issuing “flagrant” penalties allowed under the 2006 Miner Act. I’m not sure that the McAteer team could have put it any simpler:

The disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine is proof positive that the [federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners.

And it was the late  Sen. Robert C. Byrd, for whom this new legislation is named, who said during a May 2010 hearing on the mine disaster:

Assistant Secretary Main and his team at the Mine Safety & Health Administration still have much to explain regarding this tragedy at Upper Big Branch. It happened on their watch — their watch. I don’t believe it was because of a lack of funding. I don’t believe that MSHA lacked enforcement authorities.

The Obama administration itself is having a bit of a problem accepting responsibility for MSHA’s role in the disaster.  Howard Berkes at NPR reported yesterday that he had to really push agency chief Joe Main for some answers on this point:

In an interview with NPR, assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main tried to shift attention to the report’s focus on Massey Energy but acknowledged, “we could have done more. The report identifies areas that we’re taking a hard look at. We’ve already taken some self-examination, as well.”

Main added that the report supports the need for tougher mine safety legislation from Congress. And he said his agency has already targeted “catch me if you can” mine operators and applied tough enforcement tools the agency had never used before.

Maybe Howard warmed Joe to the idea that he needed to work on his response to such questions, because by the time I talked to him later in the day, his answer was:

I think it’s fair to say, could we have done more? The answer is yes. And have we done more? The answer is yes.

But Joe Main couldn’t resist taking a little swipe at McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration:

We’re using tools that weren’t in use on April 4. We’re using tools that some folks in all of the previous administrations never used, particularly the way that we are. I think it’s a sign that we’ve learned lessons from that disaster and we’re doing more.

The recommendations in the McAteer team’s report certainly supports some of the sorts of reforms that are included in the Byrd legislation — things like tougher protections for miners who blow the whistle on safety problems, subpoena power for MSHA and more transparent examinations of major mining accidents.

And while McAteer praised some of the efforts that Main and his team have made under the Obama administration, the independent investigation report also points the finger squarely at federal regulators for not protecting the lives of those 29 men who died last April.