Coal Tattoo

The Upper Big Branch Memorial

Yesterday, I blogged about the 10th anniversary of the near-disaster at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, and raised the question of why MSHA chief Joe Main hasn’t proposed the sort of rule that he previously argued — back when he was safety director of the United Mine Workers — was desperately needed to avoid a repeat of Quecreek.

Tomorrow down in Raleigh County, the politicians will be out in force, when an impressive memorial will be dedicated to the 29 miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Folks in the Whitesville area are rightly proud of the monument they’ve built. It will be a good day for the relatives, friends and neighbors of the community to remember the men they lost, and thank each other for the way they came together after the disaster.

It’s just too bad that every political leader who can possible squeeze it into their schedule will have to parade to the podium and get their couple of minutes to tell us how much they respect coal miners, care about their safety, and will do everything they can to help protect them. Why? Because no matter what they say, the record is clear that political leaders in our nation and our state are absolutely not doing everything they could do help prevent another Upper Big Branch or otherwise protect the safety and health of coal miners.

On the federal level, comprehensive mine safety reform legislation has been stuck in the Congress for more than two years now, mostly because Republican leaders in the House have it bottled up good.   Earlier this week, the GOP blocked another effort by House Education and Labor ranking member Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to help move forward on efforts to stop the death toll from black lung disease. The Republicans continue to push to block the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s regulatory proposal on black lung.

Now, West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is said to be tight with her fellow Republicans who run the House. And we all know that Rep. Capito spends a lot of time talking about how much she cares about coal miners and their jobs. She’s on the agenda to speak at the Upper Big Branch Memorial event tomorrow (even though it’s not her district). So if she cares so much about coal miners, why hasn’t Rep. Capito publicly called for her GOP friends to stop their blockade on critical safety legislation and health regulations?

On the state level, the situation is perhaps even worse, despite the passage earlier this year of what most West Virginia media outlets foolishly described as comprehensive mine safety legislation.  We’ve tried over and over again on this blog (see here, here, here and here) and in the Gazette (see here, here and here) to explain the weaknesses of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s bill. And we’ve pointed out how Gov. Tomblin’s public promises to do everything he could to help coal miners have withered over time into babbling about how the bill will somehow make mining a little safer. The facts are that the Tomblin administration took Upper Big Branch, and used it to help the coal industry get its pet measure — drug testing for coal miners — through the Legislature. Even the most liberal state lawmakers — folks like House Speaker Rick Thompson, who lost his father in a mining accident, and Delegate Mike Caputo, a United Mine Workers leader, went right along with this maneuver.

In Washington today, there was perhaps a moment for optimism, when Sen. Jay Rockefeller — fresh from his speech criticizing the coal industry’s public relations tactics on environmental issues — introduced what appears to be an even stronger bill than the initial versions of the legislation named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is co-sponsoring the legislation and said this about recent meetings with families of the Upper Big Branch miners:

These families have endured so much, and have been told time and again that they just need to show a little more patience. Well, let me tell you that we’re all tired of hearing simple rhetoric.

But as the Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard pointed out on Twitter, the introduction of this bill comes just before Congress takes a long break from early August through Labor Day. After that, everyone will be focused on the election, and after that, you’re dealing with a lame duck Congress.

It would be easier to ignore the timing of Sen. Rockefeller’s bill if his press office hadn’t puffed up its announcement of the legislation with stuff like this:

Rockefeller has made protecting coal miner health and safety one of his chief goals in public office, and this bill re-affirms his lifelong commitment.

The Rockefeller announcement rightly points out the passage of very helpful legislation that makes coal companies report major safety problems and data about their safety compliance to stockholders in U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Then again, the senator’s announcement praises MSHA for toughening its standards for rock-dusting, despite the fact that MSHA knew about the problems with the previous standards for years and ignored repeated recommendations from NIOSH until after the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up.

I’ve written before that one thing Sen. Rockefeller could do if he’s serious about mine safety is to convene a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to examine new technologies and scientific breakthroughs that could protect miner health and safety. He could still do that, and use the hearing to press for the Senate to move his legislation. The hearing might also be a forum for MSHA chief Joe Main to be quizzed about why he doesn’t move more quickly to implement a requirement that all mine operators use the advanced coal-dust explosibility meters that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin forced Alpha Natural Resources to begin installing at its operations. Of course, doing that would require something that most Democrats in Congress have been unwilling to do: Ask the tough questions of their friend Joe Main about the long list of failures by MSHA to prevent the Upper Big Branch deaths.

All of this reminds me of what Rep. David McKinley, another West Virginia Republican, said more than a year ago about Upper Big Branch at one of the memorial services to mark the first anniversary of the disaster:

I yearn so much for the assurance that the work we’re doing in Washington will give the confidence that this will never happen again. But as we’ve all learned, in many respects, it’s out of our hands. But we can do whatever man can do. We’re going to assure you we can do the best we can to assure that this never happens again.

Well, nobody has offered any credible evidence that what happened at Upper Big Branch was “out of our hands.” And certainly, there’s no question that ending black lung disease is not “out of our hands.”

When will our leaders act to really protect coal miners? Or are we just going to have to be satisfied with some more simply rhetoric?