Three years after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster: ‘Why are we failing our miners?’

April 3, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Mine helmets and painted crosses sit at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Montcoal, W.Va. The memorial represents the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Friday will mark the 3rd anniversary of the massive explosion that killed 29 coal miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.  Several events are planned to commemorate the disaster (see here and here), and we can expect the usual round of statements from political leaders about how much they’ve done to ensure nothing like this ever happens again — and to make sure every coal miner gets to go home to their family after every shift.

How well are we really doing? To answer that question, you might turn first to the op-ed piece that was in this past Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, written by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer and his associate, Beth Spence, who worked on the independent investigation of Upper Big Branch.  They explain:

As we said in our independent report released in May 2011, the explosion was no accident. Those 29 men were killed because officials of a rogue coal company disregarded worker safety in the drive to produce coal. But that’s not the entire story. The UBB miners also died because regulators — both from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training — abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operator complied with minimum fundamental safety requirements.

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd once said, “The test of a great country such as ours is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk … Those men and women who bravely labor in such dangerous occupations as coal mining to provide our country with critical energy should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety.”

Unfortunately, our country is failing Sen. Byrd’s test. In the first quarter of 2013, eight miners were killed in the nation’s mines, five in West Virginia. This compares with five during the same period of 2012, two in 2011 and two in 2010. Instead of trending downward, deaths are increasing.

Their op-ed notes that the state of West Virginia has really done very little to improve its mine safety system since Upper Big Branch. The minor reforms contained in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s “comprehensive” legislation are mostly stalled, as we’ve reported in the Gazette here, here, here, and here. As McAteer and Spence say:

The state’s one accomplishment has been to implement a drug-testing program, which was promoted by the coal industry and which had absolutely nothing to do with the deaths of the UBB miners.

On the federal level, their op-ed explains:

The U.S. Congress has done even less. Before his death, Sen. Byrd introduced legislation aimed at serial safety violators like Massey Energy, which operated UBB. The bill went nowhere, as has subsequent safety legislation. Bills recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate stand little chance of passage. Republicans and Democrats appear to be engaged in an endless debate as to whether to strengthen legislation or ensure that current laws are enforced.


Jami Cash, daughter of dead coal miner Michael Elswick, attends a vigil following the Upper Big Branch Memorial Service, Tuesday, April 5, 2011, in Whitesville, W.Va. The memorial was for the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine in 2010 (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner).

Now, it’s true that MSHA chief Joe Main has tried to move aggressively on some fronts following Upper Big Branch. As we explained in a story today:

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has made important strides in the last year, but still has plenty of room to improve, according to a new government audit issued just before Friday’s third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Labor Department Office of Inspector General investigators praised MSHA for “significant progress” implementing recommendations of an “internal review” of agency actions prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

But, that inspector general’s report also noted inaction by MSHA related to the recommendations of an independent panel, appointed by NIOSH, to provide another level of oversight on top of MSHA’s “internal review”:

Our review found that although MSHA was planning to implement much of what was recommended in the Independent Panel’s report, it was not planning to implement all of the recommendations, and we believed that MSHA had been somewhat slow to engage the Panel in order to clarify the meaning and underlying intent of the report’s recommendations.

And IG investigators were clearly not buying into MSHA’s excuse that it could not set deadlines for enacting some recommendations because those recommendations were beyond MSHA’s control:

While the OIG understands the constraints under which the agency operates, we believe MSHA must set target dates for engaging responsible officials to take such actions as rulemaking, research, legal reviews, and funding contingencies.

On the state level, it was interesting to hear now-Sen. Joe Manchin earlier this week touting the legislation passed when he was governor in response to the disasters at Sago and Aracoma. What Sen. Manchin didn’t mention was that his legislation was aimed not at preventing disasters in the first place, but at responding to fires and explosions once they happen. And, the senator also didn’t mention that one of his key efforts (done by executive order, not legislation) following Upper Big Branch — increased state scrutiny of the control of explosive coal duststill hasn’t really been implemented by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

The latest effort by state political leaders to appear to be doing something about mine safety came just yesterday in the House of Delegates, where Democratic leaders pushed through a bill that would expand the state’s mine safety tax credit to include methane monitors. House Speaker Rick Thompson did the typical thing, and issued a press release praising himself for this action:

I want the state to do everything possible to ensure that the most accurate safety equipment is in our coal mines. It is my hope that the expansion of this tax credit will encourage equipment manufacturers to produce the methane monitoring units our mining companies need in order to comply with our new, more rigid safety standards.

Speaker Thompson went on to say:

I am very proud of the new safety standards the Legislature put in place last year, but the effort to keep our miners safe is a continual one. This bill is yet another step in the process.

Of course, the problem with the state’s new methane monitoring requirements isn’t that coal operators need tax breaks to install the devices — it’s that lawmakers refused to put an installation deadline in the law or define a key term in the statute, leaving those decisions up to a state board that is many months overdue for issuing rules on those matters. If Speaker Thompson really wanted to get this process moving, he would have pushed through legislation taking those decisions on, so that further delays by the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety wouldn’t continue to stall implementation.

So really, we’re back where started this discussion, with what Davitt McAteer and Beth Spence concluded in their op-ed piece:

Those who knew the UBB miners or know their families will never ever forget. But for the rest of the nation, those men, like hundreds of miners before them, will slip all too soon into the collective memory of heartbreak and loss that is part of the fabric of the Appalachian coalfields.

As we said in our report, there have been times when courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level responded to mining disasters with big, bold reforms, sending families the message that their loved ones had not died in vain. Sadly, in response to UBB, protections of miners have diminished, known safety remedies have been neglected and new technologies aren’t being implemented.

We have to ask ourselves, as Sen. Byrd did, how serious we are about protecting those at risk. So far, the answer is we’re not very serious at all.


3 Responses to “Three years after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster: ‘Why are we failing our miners?’”

  1. Ted Boettner says:

    This may be unpopular to say, but I think a big reason for the lack of progress on coal mining safety is tied up in Appalachian fatalism and the increasing low expectations of people living in southern West Virginia. If my brother was killed in the explosion, I would have raised holly hell. I would have formed a grassroots movement and organization along with the other families to push our legislature to enact real coal mining safety reform. I would have collected petitions, raised money, organized several marches, held rallies at the capital and not stopped until real reform was passed. Why this did not happen remains to me one of the most unanswered questions of the last couple years. If folks can’t get outraged about 29 miners dying because of greed, then what will ever motivate these communities to seek progressive change? Look at Newtown as an example of doing what is right. They got meaningful gun legislation passed (whether you agree with it or not) because the families organized were outraged. Where is the outrage?

  2. Steve says:

    You think it’s Appalachian fatalism? That is offensive to every West Virginian. Stereotypical in fact.

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