Coal Tattoo

UMWA: Leadership changes at MSHA ‘troubling’

FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

 

There’s been a lot of buzz this week over leadership changes by the Trump administration at the U.S. Department of Labor and the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The first report I saw from Politico (subscription required) indicated this:

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta shuffled his top staff this morning, moving chief of staff Wayne Palmer to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and replacing him with Acting Solicitor of Labor Nicholas Geale.

Palmer will now serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, the top spot at MSHA. Geale will temporarily serve dual roles as chief of staff and solicitor of labor.

Geale, in a statement through a spokeswoman, said Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while. He’s from Pennsylvania and mining is in his family’s background. His leadership as Acting Assistant Secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.”

The next day, there was this:

Geale said in a written statement that Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while,” noting that Palmer had roots in Pennsylvania and that mining was in his family’s background. “His leadership as acting assistant secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.” No word yet on who Trump will nominate for the assistant secretary position; a White House spokesman declined to comment. 

Then last evening, the United Mine Workers of America weighed in, with this statement from UMWA President Cecil Roberts:

The appointment of Mr. Wayne Palmer as Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is a matter of great concern to us. At a time when fatalities and serious injuries are on the rise again, after having fallen for six consecutive years, the appointment of someone with absolutely no apparent experience in mine safety and health to this position is troubling, to say the least.

Mr. Palmer may be a fine man and has experience working in the government. But what does he know about float coal dust and its dangers? What does he know about mine inspections and why they are important? What does he know about the need for ventilation, roof control, rock dusting, and a hundred other things that the person in charge of keeping our miners safe and secure needs to know?

Continue reading…

Five things about President Trump and coal

 

FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

 

This evening’s visit to Huntington by President Donald Trump will undoubtedly involve the president talking up the coal industry and touting what he continues to insist is a major rebound that will only keep growing.

But here are some things to remember about President Trump and coal:

1.   Be wary of assertions or predictions (like this remarkably misleading boasting by Gov. Jim Justice) that another huge coal boom is underway or is just around the corner. Production actually dropped somewhat in the second quarter of this year. And while jobs are up a bit, much of this is in the highly volatile steel-making coal market, and most experts see little evidence that this is going to drive the sort of turnaround that many folks in the coalfields dream is coming.

2. While professing to just absolutely love coal miners, President Trump is overseeing what could be the start of a significant dismantling of many important safety and health protections for coal miners. His Labor Department is working out a settlement of an industry challenge to an important rule that toughened enforcement in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the recently announced regulatory agenda for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration delays or drops some key rulemaking initiatives.

3. Coal mining deaths are up so far under the Trump administration. As of this morning, there have been 10 reported coal-mining deaths nationwide in 2017. That’s more than the eight mining deaths that occurred in all of 2016.  Meanwhile, the only new effort by MSHA to respond to this is one of those voluntary compliance assistance programs, a program that is drawing criticism from the United Mine Workers union.  And not for nothing, but the president still hasn’t appointed anyone to serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health.

UPDATED:  MSHA has confirmed this afternoon that another coal miner was killed on the job last evening in Colorado, pushing the number of fatalities this year to 11.

4. While the science continues to show serious environmental damage from coal-mining (and potentially grave threats to public health), the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle new standards aimed at reducing the impacts.  Getting rid of the Interior Department’s stream protection rule wasn’t enough, though. Just this week, as the administration prepared for the president’s trip to West Virginia, Interior was touting a move to streamline processing of new mining permits.

5. Black lung is a real worker health crisis in Appalachia.  NPR’s Howard Berkes continues to document this disaster (see here and here), but there is little response from policy makers and certainly not from the president who claims to care so much about coal miners.

Trump dumps and delays key coal-mine safety rules

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

Of course, we’re still waiting for President Donald Trump to let us know who he wants to have running the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

But we have seen a little taste of MSHA under Trump with this new voluntary initiative in response to the uptick in coal-mining deaths. And amid the journalism that’s focused on some of the administration’s efforts to dismantle the regulatory safety net in our country (one of the best stories was this one from ProPublica and The New York Times), this story we did at the Gazette-Mail hasn’t gotten enough attention:

The Trump administration is negotiating to settle legal challenges brought by Murray Energy and a collection of industry trade associations over a rule change meant to toughen federal coal mine safety enforcement following the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in 2010.

A federal magistrate judge in Ohio has put two similar cases — one brought by Murray Energy and the other by coal associations in Ohio and Kentucky — on hold following a joint motion by the industry plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice, representing federal mine safety regulators. The joint motion indicated the parties believe they can work out a deal that would resolve mining company objections to an Obama administration rule meant to beef up enforcement against repeat violators of standards meant to protect the nation’s miners.

“Rather than concurrently litigating and negotiating a possible settlement of the dispute, the parties are open to negotiating a mutually agreeable resolution that could avoid further litigation,” said the joint motion, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Columbus.

The joint filing indicated that lawyers for the industry and the government had met on May 1 and agreed that settlement negotiations “were sufficiently promising to warrant a stay of this litigation.”

“The parties have since discussed their commitment to a structured series of conferences to consider a negotiated resolution,’ the joint filing said.

And now,  with this week’s somewhat late release of the spring update of the Labor Department’s regulatory agenda, we can get a look at what the Trump administration is going to do with some other important MSHA rules (for a broader examination government-wide at Trump’s regulatory agenda, read this story from The Washington Post).

First, the most important thing to note — that is, important if you care about the black lung crisis that is killing our coal miners — is the MSHA rule concerning Respirable Crystalline Silica.  Last year, the Obama administration indicated that MSHA would publish a proposed rule this April.  Now, though, the Trump administration has moved this project to its list of “long-term actions” and listed the next action is “undetermined.”

Continue reading…

UMWA raises more concerns about MSHA program

Labor Day PIcnic Cecil Roberts

 

We’ve had a Gazette-Mail story and a Coal Tattoo blog post about the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s new voluntary training initiative, a program launched in response to a troubling uptick in coal-mining deaths this year, especially in West Virginia.

Now, the United Mine Workers of America union is continuing its criticism of the MSHA program.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts sent this letter earlier this month to Acting MSHA chief Pat Silvey.

Among other things, the union is concerned that MSHA is not going to allow agency staffers who visit mines as part of this program to actually write violations and that official miners’ representatives would not be included in these “compliance assistance” visits to mining operations.

Murray makes good on promise to sue John Oliver

murraypeace2

 

As expected, Murray Energy and its CEO, Bob Murray, have filed a lawsuit against HBO and its Sunday night personality John Oliver over the blistering commentary on Murray and his company (watch it here).

You can read the lawsuit for yourself here, and this is how Murray Energy described it in the company’s press release:

The deceitful and damaging statements of Time Warner, HBO, and their operatives were clearly a deliberate attempt to assassinate the character of Mr. Robert E. Murray, a champion of the United States coal industry and patriotic American, and to destroy Murray Energy, a company which Mr. Murray founded nearly thirty years ago and built into the largest underground coal mining company in the United States. Allowing these false statements to stand unrefuted would be a disservice to the Company’s employees, who rely on Mr. Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to the Company’s lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance.

The company continued:

The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray, and all of Murray Energy, particularly our Mines in the State of West Virginia, where we are the largest coal mining employer in the State, as well as coal mining itself, one of the primary foundations of that State’s economy.

This suit comes after legal action by Murray last month against The New York Times over an editorial that paper published.  Lawyers for the Times have filed a motion to have that case dismissed, and here’s part of what they said in their legal brief on that issue:

In publishing the editorial, The New York Times and its editorial board were commenting on a significant issue of public importance and concern and acted properly. All of The New York Times’ conduct is fully protected by well-settled legal principles under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution … 

… The challenged statements in The New York Times’ editorial at issue are both true and expressions of opinion and commentary on a significant matter of public concern, not actionable under First Amendment precedent or applicable West Virginia law.

cecilsenatehearing2010

 

The United Mine Workers of America just issued a statement about the latest U.S. coal-mining death that occurred on Monday in Alabama, saying:

The entire UMWA family is mourning the loss of our brother miner, Marius Shepherd, 33, a member of UMWA Local Union 2133, who was killed at the Seneca Coal Resources Oak Grove mine in Hueytown, Ala., on Monday. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and we stand ready to assist them at this terrible time. 

Brother Shepherd died as a result of injuries sustained after leaping from a runaway locomotive underground. Our safety representatives have been on the site since immediately after the incident and are participating in the investigation along with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. 

UMWA President Cecil Roberts went on to say:

This is the ninth fatality in U.S. coal mines this year, one more than all of last year. All stakeholders in the mining industry – employers, government safety agencies, and the workers – need to take steps to stop this deadly trend.

And, remarking on the latest move by the Trump administration’s MSHA (see here and here), Roberts said:

I note that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has instituted a ‘compliance assistance’ program to address this. The UMWA is not and never has been in favor of so-called ‘compliance assistance’ programs, and this one is no different. MSHA is giving the operators leeway to select who can participate in this program and who cannot. To be effective, MSHA’s program must be training everyone receives. And, despite our 127-year history of dealing with mine safety issues and developing solutions to those issues, MSHA failed to reach out to us at all with respect to developing this program. 

Continue reading…

Coal mining deaths continue

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Photo from U.S. MSHA / On May 18, a miner was killed at the Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County when his head hit the mine roof and/or a roof support.

While I was out of pocket last week, another West Virginia coal miner was killed on the job.

The cryptic statement from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training provided little insight into what happened:

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training confirms a fatal incident occurred Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 8:47 p.m., at the Rockwell Mining LLC, Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County. Preliminary information indicates Rodney S. Osborne of Artie, WV, was operating a continuous miner at the time of the incident.  Mr. Osborne was a continuous miner operator at the mine; he was 32 years old.

Inspectors from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training have started their investigation. The mine is idle at this time. 

Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration were more helpful, reporting that Osborne was “fatally injured when he was pinned between the cutter head of a remote-controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib. The victim was backing the continuous mining machine from the working face when the accident occurred.

The on Monday, down in Alabama, another coal miner was killed on the job.  Local media identified him as Marius Shepherd of Jasper. The preliminary information from MSHA described what happened at the Oak Grove Mine this way:

Two locomotives were transporting supplies into the mine on three rail cars.  While traveling in an inby direction, the locomotives lost control of the load.  The victim was riding on the front locomotive along with a motorman.  The victim was thrown from or jumped from the locomotive and suffered fatal injuries.  An inspector was at the mine when the accident occurred and …  the investigation is ongoing.

Continue reading…

Obama Mine Explosion

 

Word is that there’s some sort of a deal that would turn the controversial mine safety bill pending in the West Virginia Senate into another “agreed to bill.”

At least that’s what state Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, indicated on Saturday. The actual language of the expected “committee substitute” hasn’t been made public yet, but will apparently be discussed tomorrow during a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining, which Smith (an official from Mettiki Coal) chairs.

Smith let word of the deal slip on Saturday during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, when he was asking about any progress among various stakeholder groups to work out a deal on a “forced pooling” bill that the natural gas industry very much wants. Smith offered no details, but said of the deal he says he helped work out, “Everybody lost something, but everybody gained something, too.”

Meanwhile, the West Virginia mine safety bill and somewhat similar legislation moving in Kentucky got the attention of the editorial board of The New York Times, which commented today:

President Trump’s vow to bring back the coal industry’s heyday is a delusion. But it’s already inspiring Republican legislatures in Appalachia to resurrect a grim element of those boom times: loose safety laws that endangered miners’ lives and protected owners’ profits.

… Federal safety standards should be adequate, the sponsors airily insist. In truth, both state and federal governments should continue to exercise parallel responsibilities in protecting miners’ health and safety. This is particularly vital now that Mr. Trump’s proposed budget would inflict a 21 percent cut on the Labor Department, which is responsible for federal mine inspections.

… Political pandering is nothing new in Appalachia, where the coal industry has wooed and intimidated generations of state lawmakers to favor mine owners. But this latest bout, launched in tandem with Mr. Trump’s fantasy job promises, can only leave remaining miners in greater danger on the job.

 

Mine safety rollbacks: W.Va. is not alone

Mine Explosion Anniversary

As we reported here yesterday, the West Virginia Senate’s Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining met yesterday to take up SB 582, a bill to strip the state’s inspectors of any real enforcement role in coal mine health and safety (see also the companion bill introduced in the House).

A longer story in today’s print edition (and online here) provides more details about that bill, and explains that the EIM committee sent the measure to a subcommittee for further review.

It’s interesting to note that West Virginia is not alone in its effort this year to roll back mine safety protections under state law.

This is also happening in Kentucky, and it’s already happened in Illinois.

So far, I’ve seen no meeting scheduled for the subcommittee that’s looking at the West Virginia bill … so stay tuned.

 

Mine Explosion

A sign for the Upper Big Branch miners is seen in front of a church in Eunice off of Route 3, W.Va. on Thursday, March 8, 2010. .(AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths last year and we’ve seen two coal miners — including one working at one of the governor’s operations — die on the job so far in 2017.

So obviously, it’s a good time for lawmakers at the Capitol to start focusing on coal-mine safety. And what better time to introduce what is certainly the most sweeping mine safety bill in many years than on a Saturday session of the state Senate, right?

After an initial glance at Senate Bill 582, here’s what United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts had to say over the weekend:

We are reviewing the legislation to make sure we fully understand the impact it will have on working miners. This is the first opportunity we have had to see any of this language. The fact that this bill was introduced on a Saturday when it would get the least amount of media coverage tells you all you need to know about how proud its authors are of it. When legislators are afraid of the people finding out what they are doing, something is wrong.

smith_randyThe bill, sponsored by Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal official, is 106 pages long and is  — to borrow the word used by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — “breathtaking” in the extent to which is essentially eliminates any meaningful role for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in enforcement of  safety and health protections for West Virginia’s miners.

For example, instead of conducting “inspections” at the state’s mines, the office would only perform “compliance visits and education.” Actual enforcement actions could only be taken against mine operators if a state employee discovers conditions that present imminent danger to workers — unless, of course, the infraction was committed by an individual miner. The state’s “Individual Penalty Assessments,” which target mostly mid-level foremen and not companies or corporate agents, would remain part of state law, under the bill.

Oddly, in a state where coal industry officials and their politicians have spent so much time bucking any role for the federal government in regulating mining, the bill also eliminates a long list of West Virginia safety and health standards and says that instead of those standards, mine operators must simply follow U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules.

There’s a lot of other stuff in this bill, including some confusing provisions about the Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Reclamation Fund, a program that is of growing importance as the state faces the decline of the coal industry and the legacy liabilities that often poorly regulated mining has left behind.

The bill is on the agenda today for a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Smith. Two of the bill’s other three sponsors are also on the committee, if that gives you any idea whether this legislation is set to get moving.

This would be the third year in a row that West Virginia lawmakers have moved to weaken coal mine safety and health protections (see here and here). And before you blame the Republicans, recall that a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor didn’t exactly pass meaningful mine safety reforms in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Stay tuned …

What we can learn from the Blankenship appeal

Mine Explosion Congress

 

This morning, when I looked a the calendar to see what the day ahead would be like, I saw the date: Jan. 19. I was reminded of a Jan. 19 more than a decade ago, when the day took a terrible turn and two men working at one of Don Blankenship’s coal mines ended up dead.  I’m sure it’s another hard day for the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield. The calendar can be like that for mining families. The winter months especially are way too full of dates that mark one awful disaster or another.

Then shortly after I got to the newsroom, an email alert showed up from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, noting a new document filed in the Blankenship appeal:

PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 5:14-cr-00244-1.

I clicked, called up the opinion, and hurried to scroll down to the key passage:

Defendant Donald Blankenship (“Defendant”), former chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy Company (“Massey”), makes four arguments related to his conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws and regulations. After careful review, we conclude the district court committed no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.

We’ve got a lot of changes coming our way in this country. Come tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our President. Already in West Virginia, we’ve seen what is likely a similarly significant change. On Monday, Jim Justice stood at the Capitol and took the oath as our new governor.

As a candidate, President-elect Trump certainly talked a lot about doing away with government regulations, especially those he says were killing the coal industry. Governor Justice has promised to fight federal environmental regulations that get in the way of his industry, and says under his leadership. West Virginia will mine more coal than ever before.

There’s obviously a lot of evidence that suggests the coal revival that’s being promised is very unlikely to happen. But today’s events, and the history of what happened today back in 2006, should make us think about this from another perspective.

Continue reading…

blacklungminer2

 

If you happened to be a regular reader of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, yesterday’s bombshell about black lung disease was enough to frighten you.

In the paper, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that they had confirmed a cluster of the mostly deadly form of the disease — Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF — at a clinic in the Kentucky coalfields. This cluster hadn’t been discovered during the regular NIOSH routines that track black lung, and raised serious questions that the extent of the crisis was far worse than previously explained:

… Cases in this report were not identified through standard coal workers’ pneumoconiosis surveillance, and whether similar clusters of cases exist in other communities is not known. Thus, the actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.

But if you happened to be listening to NPR’s All Things Considered later in the day, you heard the results of a new investigation by the great Howard Berkes:

Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.

The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.

But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.

The reaction from experts in the field — people who have spent their adult lives studying black lung and trying to fight the disease — was nothing short of terrifying.

Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, Chicago:

I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career.

Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University:

I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health. It’s almost like I’ve failed.

Scott Laney, one of the authors of the NIOSH paper:

The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard. We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.

I guess it’s still early, but the thing I notice is that my email inbox is pretty empty today.

Where are the formal statements from West Virginia political leaders expressing their outrage at this situation? Where are the press releases demanding action?

When anyone releases a new regulation aimed at fighting climate change or trying to curb mountaintop removal pollution, the last place you want to be is between any of our state’s politicians and a microphone or camera. But 1,000 cases of the most severe and deadly form of a disease that has killed 78,000 coal miners since 1969?

Crickets.

Of course, nobody really much campaigns around these parts on a platform of promising to protect the health and safety of coal miners. Those days are gone, especially now that Ken Hechler has passed.

We’re hearing a lot right now from politicians and the political media echo chambers about the middle class, the working class, people who live in middle America. What I can’t understand is how it is that issues like black lung — or any number of a long list of worker health and safety threats — isn’t really talked about like it’s a working class issue.

During this year’s presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did mention black lung, but only briefly on her website and in context of protecting the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung. She didn’t propose more steps to end this terrible disease. Secretary Clinton did talk a bit about coal miner safety, after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship showed up at an anti-Clinton rally. She expressed her support for making crimes like Blankenship’s a felony, instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison.

If President-elect Donald Trump talked about black lung, I must have missed it. But does anyone really believe a Trump administration will make tougher regulations and enforcement of mine safety and health protections a priority?

When mine safety and health came up during our state’s gubernatorial campaign, it was in the form of a ridiculous attack by the United Mine Workers on Republican Bill Cole and in defense of Democrat Jim Justice, our now-Governor-elect who can’t seem to pay all his mine safety fines on time, and over a bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

What people who are truly friends of coal miners ought to do is make sure that all of our elected officials have to sit down and listen to what it sounds like for Mackie Branham — one of the coal miners Berkes interviewed — just trying to breathe.

Trump: Getting the old band back together

FILE - In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

 

In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source.  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

It was certainly interesting to see Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s statement about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao as his transportation secretary:

Elaine Chao is an excellent choice for transportation secretary. She is a trail blazer with a proven record of leadership. I enjoyed hosting Elaine in West Virginia during the Bush Administration and hope she will visit again in her role as transportation secretary to see why infrastructure is a top priority for the Mountain State.

When I heard about this particular cabinet pick, my own memories went back to the speech that Secretary Chao gave after 13 coal miners were killed in a massive series of underground explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama, in September 2001.

Of course, President-elect Trump has already nominated Wilbur Ross — who owned the Sago Mine when it blew up and killed 12 miners — to be his commerce secretary. And now Chao. It certainly takes those of us who follow mine safety issues back in time.

It was less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. Speaking at a memorial service in Alabama, Secretary Chao compared the efforts of a dozen miners who died trying to save a coworker to the heroic efforts of those firefighters and police officers who died trying to save 9/11 victims:

In the deepest darkness of these tragedies, we have also seen the best that America has to offer.

Then, Secretary Chao made a promise to the miners’ families:

Whether it be the terrorist attack on September 11 or the mine disaster that claimed thirteen lives this last weekend, we are determined to do everything we possibly can to keep it from ever happening again.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly what Chao did at Labor, or what the Bush administration’s pick to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Dave Lauriski, did either.  The Bush administration’s record on mine safety speaks for itself, really … After Jim Walter came Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon … Forty-one coal miners killed in those disastrous — and preventable — incidents alone.

The Bush administration had quietly stopped work on more than a dozen regulations aimed at improving mine safety, promoted budget cuts at MSHA, and encouraged regulators to regulate less and cooperate more with a highly hazardous industry with a history of death and disaster. The results eroded the ability of MSHA to protect the health and safety of miners, and a series of the agency’s own internal reviews reflected lack of resources and political will to do the job Congress had set out for its inspectors. MSHA was left unable to perform its most basic task — the mandated quarterly inspections of all of the nation’s coal mines.

I wonder why Sen. Capito didn’t mention any of that in her statement on Secretary Chao.

Sago Mine owner eyed for Trump posts

sagocrosses1

 

There are multiple news reports (see here, here and here, just for example) this evening that President-elect Donald Trump is strongly considering venture capitalist Wilbur Ross as his nominee to be secretary of the Department of Commerce or secretary of the Treasury.

Readers in coal country may recall Ross as the man who really owned the Sago Mine, the International Coal Group operation in Upshur County where 12 coal miners died in a Jan. 2, 2006 explosion.

As we reported in the Gazette at the time:

wilbur-rossNew York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has controlled the company that owns the Sago Mine since at least early 2001, according to court records, corporate disclosures and other publicly available documents.

Ross began buying up Anker Coal Group in 1999, with the purchase of a one-fifth stake in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

By 2001, Ross had acquired 47 percent of the company – making him by far the largest shareholder, SEC records show.

One commentary this evening in The Nation spells out the development this way:

After campaigning as a champion of coal miners, Donald Trump is reportedly close to choosing for Commerce Secretary a New York billionaire who owned a West Virginia mine where a dozen miners were killed in 2006. Trump’s favored candidate, Wilbur Ross, also engineered buyouts that cost workers their benefits and their jobs. It’s a striking choice, considering Trump’s promises to improve the lives of coal miners and other working-class Americans.

The possibility that Ross would get a spot in the Trump team isn’t that surprising, given that Ross has been reported for a while to be one of the President-elect’s economic policy advisers.

It is worth pointing out that if he got either the Commerce or Treasury slot, Ross would not be in charge of coal mine safety and health regulation for the Trump administration. Folks who are concerned about those issues would obviously be better off watching to see who President-elect Trump makes Secretary of Labor — and then who exactly is chosen to by Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.

Is something like Sago too much baggage for Ross to become a cabinet secretary? Well, considering some of the other appointments already announced by the transition team, that seems pretty unlikely.

For the record, it’s certainly true that the Sago Mine didn’t exactly have a spotless safety record at the time of the deadly explosion — far from it, according to our stories published at the time (see here, here and here, just for example).

Interestingly, though, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, when it issued the report of its investigation of the Sago Disaster, did not list any of the many violations its inspectors found as having contributed to the deaths. A separate report by an independent team — led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — found plenty of blame to go around, noting failures by regulators and the company to ensure the safety of the Sago workers.

A confirmation hearing for Ross could give the Democrats in the Senate the opportunity to ask a few interesting questions … But then again, it’s not like either presidential candidate or the national media spent much time at all talking about worker safety and health during our nation’s just-completed presidential election.

FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

 

In this May 5, 2016 photo, coal miners wave signs as President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

We’ve been discussing this week the things that President-elect Donald Trump simply isn’t going to be able to do for West Virginia’s coal miners, and the things that President Obama failed to do. So it seemed like a good idea to try to identify some things that the Trump administration could do for coal miners once it takes office in January.

So I asked Sam Petsonk, a mine safety lawyer with the non-profit firm Mountain State Justice, for some ideas. Here’s what he had to say:

America’s companies have often promised us that, if you work for a living, you will be kept safe and healthy at work and you will have some financial security once you retire. Yet, tens of thousands of miners all across the Appalachian Region are losing health insurance after becoming disabled or retired, and others are confronting safety and health challenges on the job if they are still in the workplace. So, the new presidential administration faces serious challenges in assuring that companies keep those promises to coal miners—both for active workers and for retirees whose healthcare benefits are terminated or denied.

Will our companies and government leaders keep the promise to America’s workers and seniors?

This is an essential question for us to be asking. Coal miners have educated me about several increasingly important challenges as we have advocated together on workers’ and retirees’ rights over the past decade.  Here are some of those challenges, and some steps that the new administration could take to address them.

First, coal companies are laying off underground maintenance crews as a way to save money during a downturn in the market. Failing to provide basic levels of safe staffing at underground mines can cause major ventilation problems and other life-threatening hazards.  When operators fail to employ ‘outby’ maintenance crews or additional workers to hang ventilation curtains, the remaining workers often find that they do not have enough time to perform all the necessary work to keep the mine safe and productive. We have long relied upon these maintenance crews to keep our mines safe and healthful. Cutbacks on maintenance can cause a mine to lose control of its ventilation system, or to fail to identify and to clean up roof falls and dust accumulations. It takes a good bit of time to maintain the ventilation systems (repairing or plastering stoppings to prevent air leakage, and maintaining other ventilation controls, etc.). It takes more time to conduct comprehensive preshift examinations and other safety-sensitive tasks.

In many mines, the firebosses or preshift examiners cannot be relied upon to accomplish all of their firebossing tasks as well as to make up for non-existent outby maintenance crews. There is not enough time, and critical tasks will be short-changed. These are serious concerns because inadequate maintenance of ventilation structures can cause a lethal mixture of methane gas and coal dust—especially in sensitive areas like dead-air zones and methane mixing chambers. These concerns are also especially acute on a so-called “supersection” where there are two continuous mining machines on a single stream or “split” of air.  In that setting, twice as much dust is generated and the need for full staffing is therefore greater.

If the market picks up again, perhaps companies will start hiring back those maintenance crews and necessary helpers on supersections.  But in the meantime, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can take important steps to assure adequate maintenance. For instance, coal mine operators are currently required to maintain roof control and ventilation plans for their mines. MSHA has the power to mandate that the roof control and ventilation plans provide for more frequent maintenance of ‘outby’ areas, so that stoppings are regularly plastered, spillages and falls are promptly cleaned up, and maintenance crews cannot be laid off.  As for supersections, MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main has stated that best practices for staffing a supersection include a total of 16 miners: 1 foreman; 2 continuous miner operators; 2 continuous miner helpers that are also responsible for ventilation curtains; 4 shuttle car operators; 2 scoop operators; 4 roof bolter operators and 1 mechanic. This does not include outby maintenance crews, such as stopping builders or supply haulage positions (i.e., miners who are not regularly assigned to work at the mine face).  MSHA can also work with the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training to include similar requirements in the comprehensive safety plans that West Virginia coal operators are required to maintain.

Second, black lung has been on the rise for years, and MSHA should continue addressing that problem by reducing coal miners’ exposure to all forms of breathable coal mine dust (both coal and silica dust)—including by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners to work downwind from the active cutting of coal.  The promise to end the advanced forms of black lung disease has long been a basic tenet of America’s law and policy for coal miners. But miners report that companies routinely force roof bolt crews to spend hours each night drilling into the mine roof while downwind from active mining machines, in flagrant and intentional disregard of the lethal dust exposure for those downwind miners.  It is no surprise that we have a new surge in advanced black lung disease in the twenty-first century when we allow coal operators to treat miners in this fashion.

Every miner (non-union and union alike) has the right to complain to management about working in dusty conditions downwind from active mining machines in what is known as “return air.”  A growing number of miners are exercising that right, and are outright refusing to work in such conditions.  I routinely speak with and represent young men in their thirties or forties who have already worked as roof bolters for over fifteen years in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Several of them have banded together to refuse to operate their roof bolt machines in return air at such mines as the Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County, and others.  These miners are demonstrating that it is possible to run good coal and not expose miners to toxic levels of dust.

Despite the courageous efforts of a growing number of miners who are banding together and refusing to bolt in return air, additional action by MSHA is necessary in order to prevent companies from pressuring miners to resume working in return air. MSHA can stop this practice altogether by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners (roof bolters, buggy men, or anyone) to work downwind while a machine is actively cutting coal on a section.  No miner should have to stand for hours just a few feet from a continuous mining machine, breathing unfathomable amounts of highly-toxic coal and silica dust.  MSHA has the power to outlaw that type of work practice.

Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Joe Main, MSHA has taken some very important first steps to address the issue of black lung, such as reducing the permissible exposure limit and mandating better dust monitors. MSHA recently introduced a new generation of dust control technology via the continuous personal dust monitors. These new dust monitors are empowering miners with real-time information about dust exposure. Dust control is a major challenge nationwide, but especially in Central Appalachia, where miners are often forced to work in highly-toxic sandstone and silica dust, mixed with coal dust, in order to access the thin-seam coal reserves that are still left over for mining in this region. The new dust monitors are helping miners to avoid toxic dust exposures that can cause early onset of black lung in young miners.  But the monitors alone may not halt the surge of black lung if the new administration does not take additional steps to strengthen enforcement and eliminate acute dust exposure in “return air” downwind from active mining.

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‘One of the good coal operators’

Jim Justice

 

Just a few hours before the second and final debate between gubernatorial candidates Jim Justice and Bill Cole — and in the wake of last week’s devastating report about Justice by NPR — the United Mine Workers union is stepping up to defend their candidate. Here’s UMWA President Cecil Roberts in what the union says is a “reality check” on which candidate is best for mine safety:

I read the NPR story regarding the mine safety fines incurred by mines operated by companies that Jim Justice owns. Let me be clear: I believe his company needs to pay any fines it has incurred. My understanding is that those fines are, in fact, being paid right now.

But if we want to talk about which candidate for West Virginia Governor cares more about the health and safety of working miners, let’s make sure the facts are clear. Jim Justice has never questioned the need for mine safety laws and regulations.

The prepared statement from President Roberts went on:

Bill Cole hasn’t just questioned whether we need safety laws for West Virginia miners, he played a key part in slashing the state’s mine safety and health law in 2015. First, the law Bill Cole pushed through the State Senate abolished a commission that was charged with making sure miners weren’t breathing harmful diesel exhaust emissions while working underground.

Bill ColeSecond, Bill Cole agreed with those who thought it was not a problem for miners to have to carry an injured miner 1,500 feet to get to mechanized transportation and then be brought outside for medical treatment. Anyone who has ever walked underground over broken rock and lumps of coal knows how difficult that is at the best of times. Trying to do that over the equivalent of five football fields while rushing to get an injured co-worker to safety is the last thing miners need to be doing.

And third, Bill Cole supported putting miners’ lives in danger by allowing companies to move large equipment around in a mine and putting that equipment between working miners and escape routes if something bad happens. This law was put into place back in the 1970s when miners were killed as a result of this practice. We should never allow something to happen underground that we know has already lead to miners’ deaths. But Bill Cole did.

The UMWA is talking about the legislation described in this story, and which a top union official and state legislator criticized in this op-ed piece, saying:

This extreme legislation loosens coal mining safety regulations to the benefit of big corporations without any regard for worker safety.

Oddly, the UMWA didn’t mention in its statement today that the bill in question was eventually signed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, over the union’s objections.

Also not mentioned is what happened the following legislative session, earlier this year, when the UMWA actually went along with another coal lobby bill that weakened mine safety protections. That bill also passed, and was signed by Gov. Tomblin. Union officials said they had little choice but to try to reach that compromise bill, fearing the industry — and a Republican controlled Legislature with Cole as Senate President — easily had the votes to pass something worse.

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Jim Justice

 

Well, our friend Howard Berkes at NPR (along with the good folks at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource) have put together the pieces of the puzzle. Their bombshell this morning on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice reports:

… Justice’s mining companies still fail to pay millions of dollars in mine safety penalties two years after an earlier investigation documented the same behavior. Our analysis of federal data shows that Justice is now the nation’s top mine safety delinquent.

His mining companies owe $15 million in six states, including property and minerals taxes, state coal severance and withholding taxes, and federal income, excise and unemployment taxes, as well as mine safety penalties, according to county, state and federal records.

The story continues:

In the past 16 months, while fines and taxes went unpaid, Justice personally contributed nearly $2.9 million in interest-free loans and in-kind contributions to his gubernatorial campaign, according to state campaign finance reports.

Grant Herring, a spokesman for the Justice gubernatorial campaign, said Justice “won’t be doing an interview,” despite multiple requests after NPR provided details of our investigation.

Importantly, the investigation also reports:

Delinquent Justice mines also continue to have worse-than-average safety records, according to NPR’s analysis of MSHA injury and violations data. Our analysis shows that injury rates (for injuries forcing time away from work) are twice the national average and violations rates more than four times the national rate during the years the Justice mines failed to pay penalties.

The Justice fines concern Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA official, mine disaster investigator and lecturer on workplace safety at George Washington University and Texas State University.

“I don’t think we should forget that the reason that he has those penalties is because there were violations and hazards in his coal mining operations,” says Monforton.

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MSHA to miners: ‘Stop and take a breath’

Here’s an announcement just out from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Since October 2015, eight fatalities and more than 1,100 nonfatal accidents have occurred in the nation’s coal mines, resulting in restricted duty, missed days at work, and permanent disabilities for the miners who worked there.  While injury rates have been fairly consistent during this time period, records indicate a trend in accidents resulting in more serious injuries. The circumstances in at least 30 of the accidents might have led to fatalities.

MainMarch2011MSHA continued:

Beginning today, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is issuing a call to safety to coal miners working in underground and surface mines around the country. Inspectors will engage coal miners and mine operators in “walk and talks” through Sept. 30, reminding them to “stop and take a breath” before proceeding with the next task at hand.

The most common outcomes of the more than 1,100 mining accidents – 250 of which occurred at surface operations – were injuries to the back, shoulders, knees and fingers.  In the near-fatal accidents, the majority were attributed to powered haulage, electrical and machinery classifications.

The majority of non-fatal accidents occurred in West Virginia, with 419; Kentucky, with 191, and Pennsylvania, 130.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

These walk and talks are intended to increase miners’ awareness of recent accidents, encourage the application of safety training and raise hazard recognition.

 

 

blankenshiphearingleaving

 

There’s an interesting op-ed in The New York Times today by civil rights lawyer and author Chase Madar about the use of criminal prosecutions in major public safety disasters. It mentions the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and the successful prosecution of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship:

The latest criminal charges of public officials in the contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply seem righteous. After so much government ineptitude with such hideous consequences — tens of thousands of Flint residents poisoned; elevated blood lead levels in nearly 5 percent of the city’s children, many with possibly irreversible brain damage — surely these criminal charges will bring, at long last, justice for Flint.

Not really. Though these sorts of charges fulfill an emotional need for retribution and are of great benefit to district attorneys on the make, they are seldom more than a mediagenic booby prize. Prosecutorial responses fill the void left when health and safety regulations succumb to corporate and political pressure.

Take the collapse at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in 2010. Flouting safety regulations was an integral part of the corporate culture of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, and last year its chief executive, Donald L. Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor carrying a one-year sentence. Although some portrayed this as a blow for social justice, it’s difficult to see how it had much impact on mine safety.

Far more significant was the West Virginia Legislature’s passage last year of the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act, the first statutory loosening of mine safety standards in state history. While on its deregulatory binge last year, the state almost entirely rolled back aboveground chemical-tank safety standards enacted in response to the Elk River contamination disaster of 2014 – which made the water of 300,000 people undrinkable.

The general point is that criminal prosecutions won’t stop mine disasters, or water pollution, or food contamination — and that the media give far too much attention to criminal trials in these incidents, at the expense of coverage of the many failings of our civil and administrative regulatory systems that are supposed to protect the public. Attorney Madar opines:

Our prosecutorial response tends to be reactive. Volkswagen will pay at least $15 billion for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel vehicles, and may face criminal charges. The tiny research center that caught the discrepancy is now facing cuts to its $1.5 million annual budget.

A well-enforced regulatory regime lacks the TV-movie narrative arc of a criminal trial. But none of these crimes could have been committed if the government had been doing its job properly.

OK. Now one glaring problem with this whole line of thinking is that, while telling readers that these prosecutions are little more than a “mediagenic booby prize”  that we mere news reporters fall for every time, Attorney Madar seems to be getting his information about the glaring holes in regulatory systems that aren’t explained to the public from — that’s right, the mainstream media.

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Bob Murray: MSHA inspections ‘total harassment’

murraypeace2

 

Yesterday, Hoppy Kercheval had Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray on the MetroNews show “Talkline,” ostensibly to talk about the growing financial challenges faced by Murray Energy and the vote coming up on Friday by United Mine Workers of America members on a second contract proposal with Murray.

Murray said, as he has before, that a new contract to replace the UMWA deal that expires at the end of the year, is essential to his company’s survival. The MetroNews summary of his comments went like this:

“The United Mine Workers turned it down last time. It is essential, the approval of it, to complete our four step program to avoid financial default in October,” Murray said.

Murray announced in July that 4,400 employees, 80 percent of his workforce, could lose their jobs. WARN notices were sent out.

But things veered away from that pretty quickly into another attack on the Obama administration and its efforts to better regulate coal mining.  Here’s Murray, responding to Hoppy’s softball questions:

I’ve worked night and day for 29 years building this company and creating these jobs only to have them destroyed by Barack Obama and his excessive regulations. Those regulations are coming out against coal, against the utilization of coal as well as the mining of coal faster than we can read them.

Murray went on:

Talk about harassment. In the first two days of this month, our mines had 89 federal inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration run by former UMWA safety man Joe Main. Eight-nine inspectors.

That means I had to take 89 management people off of inspecting the mines, off of doing safety training. It has nothing to do with safety. It is total harassment. Eighty-nine inspectors for 15 mines … All of which are cut back in production because they keep hiring these inspectors. They have nowhere to put them. It’s all harassment. It works against safety. There are so many ways that this federal government, under Obama, which Hilary Clinton has said she will continue trying to drive the coal mines out of business. It has nothing to do with safety. It has to do with eliminating underground coal mining.

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