Coal Tattoo

‘Accidents occur’: Do coal miners have to die?

The bad news started early last Friday: A 27-year-old coal miner was crushed to death between two pieces of mining equipment deep inside an Alpha Natural Resources underground mine in Greenbrier County.  Steven O’Dell of Mount Nebo left behind a wife who is expecting their first child later this month.

A few hours later, word came that a CONSOL Energy coal-waste embankment had collapsed in Harrison County. Two company engineers narrowly escaped, but a third man — a United Mine Workers dozer operator — never made it out of the thick, murky slurry impoundment. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration lists that miner, whose identity hasn’t been released publicly, as the 19th U.S. coal miner to die in an on-the-job accident so far in 2012.

West Virginia, as so often is the case, leads the nation with 7 coal-mining fatalities this year.

How did coalfield politicians react to the industry’s deadly day a week ago?

We heard a lot of calls for prayer, which is obviously not such a bad thing, at least not in my book. But what else did political leaders — the folks who love to drone on about how much they care about coal miners — have to say about two coal miners being killed in our state in two separate accidents on the same day?

Well, Sen. Joe Manchin had this:

The loss of one miner’s life is one life too many. As the families and friends struggle to deal with the tragedies that took place today, we are reminded that we must consistently search for ways to improve safety conditions because our miners’ safety is of the utmost importance.

And Sen. Jay Rockefeller said this:

The loss of any miner or West Virginia worker is a terrible tragedy, and we must do everything possible to prevent it.  Today’s accidents are reminders that there is more we can do to be sure our miners return safely to their families at the end of every shift.  A mine safety bill, which I introduced almost three years ago, to fix the problems we know exist still hasn’t passed.  I will continue to fight for this bill and our miners.

But the one that sticks in my mind was the statement from West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

Today, four families were shaken by the unexpected but always present danger associated with mining. While we strive to ensure the safety of our coal miners, accidents do occur. Joanne and I pray for the miners and their families. We ask all West Virginians to do the same.

Accidents do occur?

It was hard not to wonder if we had suddenly traveled back in time 44 years, to the statements made by government, company and even union officials after 78 miners died in CONSOL Energy’s Farmington Mine Disaster. Back then, there was literally a parade of powerful men saying that death and disaster was just part of life in the coalfields:

— “This is something we have to live with” — John Roberts, public relations executive for Consolidation Coal. (Dr. Paul Nyden, after quoting Roberts in his doctoral dissertation,  noted, “Roberts, of course, didn’t have to live with it. He lived far away from the widows and orphans of the little West Virginia mining town.”)

— “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner” — Gov. Hulett Smith

— “I share the grief. I’ve lost relatives in a mine explosion. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion” — UMWA President Tony Boyle.

Late last Friday night, I read Gov. Tomblin’s statement over the phone to Davitt McAteer, the longtime mine safety advocate who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration. He was furious:

We do not have to live with this kind of deaths in our communities. We have ample history and knowledge about how to prevent them. The governor is wrong on this topic.

Now, maybe Gov. Tomblin didn’t really mean it the way it sounded. But we’ve written before on Coal Tattoo and in the Gazette about how Gov. Tomblin has not only backed off his verbal commitments to protecting coal miners — he went from doing “all that is necessary” to seeking “meaningful” reforms — but also significantly weakened an already tame piece of mine safety and health legislation during this year’s session.

And what’s so incredibly ironic here is that none other than the president and CEO of CONSOL Energy, Brett Harvey, has made it very clear that this talk about how “accidents happen” isn’t helpful and how the only acceptable goal for the modern coal industry is zero fatalities and zero injuries:

The message should be clear to all of us. Eliminate the problem. The best way for the industry to close the reputation-reality gap is to eliminate accidents. To be at zero. All of us need to be there.

What could Gov. Tomblin have said?

Well, the governor likes to bash the Obama administration for too closely scrutinizing the coal industry. But after last Friday morning’s death at Alpha Natural Resources, Gov. Tomblin could have issued a statement demanding that MSHA, the Labor Department and the White House stop sitting on two rules to require mine operators to install “proximity detection” devices that shut off mining equipment when workers get too close, helping to prevent what happened to Steven O’Dell. Gov. Tomblin could still do that. He could order his administration’s lawyers to put pressure on MSHA by filing a petition seeking an emergency temporary standard on proximity devices.

And not for nothing, but why don’t West Virginia political leaders make more of a public stink about the Obama administration’s glacial pace in finalizing key rules that would help to end deadly black lung disease?

Regarding coal-slurry impoundments, the governor could urge the federal Office of Surface Mining to immediately make public the results of key “compacting” testing performed at impoundments across our state’s coalfields, so that the public could know whether those tests found problems with the dangerous facilities. As we were reminded on Friday, these impoundments aren’t just something that worries environmental activists. They can be deadly for coal miners as well.

Thinking about these things over the last seven days reminded me yet again of these words from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

… 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.

In situations like those last Friday, where miners die one or two at a time, it’s even easier for the industry and its political supporters to move the political discussion forward, without any real reforms happening. If coal miners really are so important to our political leaders, shouldn’t those leaders stop acting like miner deaths are just something we have to live with?