Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, April 6, 2012

On Thursday, W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin placed a wreath at the coal miner statute on the state Capitol grounds to mark the 2nd anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office.

There was understandably quite a bit of reporting this week about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, as the two-year anniversary of the April 5, 2010, explosion came and went — still without passage of a comprehensive federal mine safety bill, approval of only a tepid piece of state legislation, continued denials by MSHA of any responsibility for the 29 deaths, and still no criminal prosecutions of any major figures from Massey Energy.

None of the weak responses by government institutions to the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years kept elected and appointed officials from issuing a flurry of statements that lamented the disaster, offered respect for coal miners, and promised reforms.

Among the coverage this week was our Sunday story pointing out one quiet movement toward making underground coal mines safer:

… Some coal operators — pushed in part by a U.S. Justice Department deal — are quietly moving forward to use much more advanced devices to provide real-time monitoring of the levels of explosive coal dust in their underground mines.

Alpha Natural Resources agreed to install the devices as part of an agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to resolve any potential criminal liability for the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Last week, lawmakers in Washington learned that the devices are available commercially, ready for use as a compliance tool, and being used by other coal companies, including CONSOL Energy and Patriot Coal.

But United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said that the entire industry is not going to adopt the “explosibility” meters unless the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration or Congress makes them.

“This equipment can provide immediate, real-time information about the incombustibility of rock dust to coal dust levels,” Roberts told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “While better and newer dust explosibility meters exist, most operators — as well as MSHA — are not purchasing them because they are not required to use them.”

Hundreds of mourners take to the streets of Whitesville, W.Va. on Thursday afternoon, April 5, 2012, as part of an Upper Big Branch Candlelight Memorial Walk to mark the second anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, F. Brian Ferguson)

Kris Maher at The Wall Street Journal wrote up a piece about a new National Mining Association initiative that sets a goal of eliminating all mining fatalities within five years reducing the rate of mining injuries by 50 percent over that same period:

Mining industry officials say the program’s development started well before the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the worst U.S. coal-mining accident in four decades. But officials said the accident confirmed the need to raise safety standards.

So far, 29 mining companies with more than 100,000 U.S. employees have said they plan to follow the program, called CORESafety. The industry has about 350,000 workers, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“We realized we had to do a better job and this is a way to enlist everyone in this effort,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. “There has to be a culture of safety, and that’s what can be achieved here.”

David Means, 71, co-owner of Blue Creek Masonary works on the Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville, W. Va.  Wednesday, March 4, 2012.  The  second anniversary of  the explosion at the UBB coal mine that killed 29 miners.  (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)

Other coverage this week included:

— Stories by Vicki Smith over at the AP about a ruling that allows one shareholder lawsuit over the mine disaster to continue and about a new lawsuit filed by one of the Upper Big Branch families against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship and a herd of other one-time Massey executives and mine managers. For those who are interested, I’ve posted a copy of that lawsuit here. Vicki also did a story about the moment of silence to honor the miners, including in it some of the statements from various political leaders about the day. She also reported on MSHA’s final rule to toughen requirements for company safety examinations.

— Howard Berkes at NPR added this piece, which included discussion of Alpha’s announcement on the eve of the anniversary that it plans to seal the Upper Big Branch Mine. I’m not sure if this clears up things or muddies it further, but here’s what Alpha spokesman Ted Pile told me regarding whether any of the reserves from UBB would be mined from a new portal somewhere else: “We are sealing the mine and have no plans to access reserves within the boundary of the Upper Big Branch mine either through existing or new portals.”

— Jessica Lilly, a great reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, did a series of five stories, with one running each day this week (see here, here, here, here and here). Today’s story included a description from the father and mother of miner Gary Wayne Quarles about what happened when word was given to families that none of the miners had survived:

“She said if I call your name you are to report to Whitesville fire department to identify the bodies,” Gary said.

“Just as though she was talking about naming your cattle,” Patty added. “I mean that’s exactly what she said. No, just come identify the bodies.

“When names started to be naming names, there was people started falling on the floor,” Gary said.

They sat in a room among the chaos waiting for confirmation that their son was dead. Patty remembers when then CEO Don Blankenship walked into the room.

“He never looked out at any family,” Patty said. “He looked straight ahead; never had a tear, never had there was nothing to him I mean you talk about cold.”

Gary May, left, of Bloomingrose, W.V., former superintendent of Upper Big Branch Mine, where an explosion killed 29 workers, walks with his defense attorney, Tim Carrico, at the Beckley Federal Courthouse in Beckley W. Va., Thursday March 29, 2012.   (AP Photo/Rick Barbero)

Also in the news has been former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May, who pleaded guilty in federal court last week as part of a deal to help prosecutors. In his piece on the plea hearing, NPR’s Howard Berkes picked up on this interesting bit of information:

One unexpected element of May’s plea agreement is the U.S. Attorney’s pledge not to prosecute May’s wife Kim. The agreement refers to “offenses she may have committed relating to…a fraudulent claim for damage to real and personal property” involving a power company in the region.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby declined to provide details but said the case involving Kim May “has nothing to do with Upper Big Branch.”

While Ruby declined to provide Howard with the details, it seems likely these cases (subscription required) are similar to the ones referred to in the Gary May’s plea agreement. In any event, I’ve posted a copy of Gary May’s plea agreement here for anyone who wants to read it. Sentencing in that case is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 9.

And there were a couple of other interesting items this week that were related to Upper Big Branch.

First, the Center for Responsible Politics posted an item headlined Two Years After Mine Disaster, Coal Lobby Is Still Growing, which reported:

In 2011, the industry spent at least $18.1 million lobbying on the federal level – millions more than the $14.9 million in 2009. That figure includes all types of companies with interests in coal, but the mining companies spend far and away the most money on lobbying — companies like Peabody Energy, which spent $4.9 million last year, and CONSOL Energy, which spent $3.2 million. Massey’s corporate successor, Alpha Natural Resources spent just over $1 million. Safety issues and mine oversight was an issue of concern listed on lobbying disclosure forms for all three companies.
To put that in perspective, the United Mine Workers, the largest miner’s union, spent just $404,419 lobbying last year.

And the Center for Progressive Reform did a piece called Two Years After Upper Big Branch Disaster, Where Are the Reforms? In describing the general inaction since Upper Big Branch, University of Texas law professor Thomas McGarity observed:

Are we Americans simply incapable of the kind of outrage that generated pressure on Congress to pass the grand safety and environmental statutes of the 1970s and 1980s over the strong opposition of the polluters and their political allies?

Perhaps in this age of information overload and 140-character interpersonal communication, we have developed a collective case of attention deficit disorder.  When what happened two hours ago is old news and what happened two weeks ago is ancient history, a disaster that took place two years ago in a remote Appalachian mine is about as relevant to the collective consciousness as the Peloponnesian wars.

Or has Congress simply become so dysfunctional that no amount of public outrage can overcome a threat by the Republican leadership to filibuster protective legislation?

And now for the most depressing question of all: Has the Obama Administration, in a failed attempt to win business community support, so lost its moral compass that the White House is mimicking the Republican leadership in Congress?