The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

May 19, 2011

UBB report provides insight into future of mine safety

BECKLEY — Following an independent investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion, investigators offered more than 50 suggestions for improving the safety of coal miners underground, and lawmakers across the state and nation have taken notice.

J. Davitt McAteer, former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and leader of the investigation team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, said currently the board of directors at a company have plenty of authority — but very little responsibility.

“We’ve got to, in this country, adopt a legal structure which connects miners in the bathhouse to the members of the board of directors,” McAteer said. “There is a disconnect occurring.”

During the investigation, 17 Massey workers, including then-CEO Don Blankenship, exercised their constitutional right to decline interviews regarding the explosion.

Aside from appropriately leveraging culpability, McAteer said it is vital that the appropriate technology for maintaining safe mines be put in the hands of the miners.

“We need to adopt technology in this country that addresses these problems and get ourselves out of the dark ages.” McAteer said Thursday. “ ... We have to get industry in its entirety to agree and accept and understand the importance and to teach their people the importance of these protections and to make sure these protections are put in place. We are long past the time where we, in this country, in 2010 and 2011, can accept the loss of 29 individuals.”

Now a U.S. Senator, Manchin said the report highlights the need to take action to ensure “these types of mistakes (are) never repeated.”

“I hope all West Virginians will be united with me in a commitment to work together to enact the right reforms to prioritize worker safety and make sure that no company can put profits ahead of lives,” Manchin said. “I am also anxiously awaiting the findings and recommendations from the other two investigations that are still under way.”

Manchin’s reference to the two additional investigations likely referred to the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation and either the federal criminal investigation or Massey’s own investigation.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., another West Virginia lawmaker who was on the scene at UBB to address family members shortly after the blast, called the report “painful to read.” He said the scathing criticisms of Massey are appropriate.

“I have already talked with Secretary of Labor (Hilda) Solis and been assured that MSHA has been, and will continue to be, aggressively improving its oversight to bring into line such rogue, bad actors as Massey,” Rahall said. “I will continue to do all that I can to ensure that the agency makes good on that promise and that it has the resources it needs to do so.”

Rahall also said he was composing legislation to close the loopholes companies like Massey exploit. He said he would also be reviewing the 52 recommendations provided in the report.

Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., co-founder of the Congressional Coal Caucus, also weighed in on the report, vowing to keep fighting for a safe work environment for an industry she said is “an indispensable part of our state, both economically and culturally.”

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the need to stop allowing mine owners to “game the system” has been around for a long time.

“It’s time to close these loopholes and hold mine owners accountable who operate in a reckless disregard of human life,” Miller said. “While Congress continues to be gridlocked by a pay-to-play political system, miners are put in grave danger by allowing the next Upper Big Branch to happen.

“Voluntary safety programs and self-policing, as the industry is advocating, is not the solution and will only put our nation’s mines back to the dark ages. There is no reason why we cannot act with a sense of urgency on these reasonable and responsible recommendations.”

Safety in the mines appears to be bipartisan issue. Miller’s counterpart, U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, also issued a statement regarding the use of congressional power to increase the safety of those who go below ground to harvest the nation’s energy.

“Federal officials, state leaders and mine operators each play a critical role in ensuring the safety of our mines,” Kline said. “The strongest laws cannot protect miners if the federal enforcement agency fails to do its job and mine operators ignore safety standards. Today’s report indicates the tragedy at Upper Big Branch resulted from a systemic failure of leadership. This is deeply disturbing.”

The report is also moving state officials to action. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said his staff will continue to review the report over the next several days and will use it as a tool to review the need for regulatory and statutory changes to the mining industry.

Tomblin said many efforts and recommendations detailed in the report are already under way.

“We have recently hired new inspectors to focus on making sure that mines are properly rock dusted,” Tomblin said. “Those inspectors are currently in training. The OMHS&T’s (Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training) lab for rock dust analysis is in place and is expected to begin operating around July 1, of this year, once training has been completed.”

Despite several efforts already under way, Tomblin acknowledged there is still much to be done in the way of generating safer mines.

“Today is no doubt another difficult day for the family and friends of the brave men we lost on the afternoon of April 5, 2010,” Tomblin said. “I hope that the report will bring some closure to their families. They and all West Virginians have my commitment that we will do all we can to make sure that a disaster like this never happens again. In honor of those we lost, I ask that all West Virginians take a moment of silent reflection in their honor.”

Safety is already a big concern for miners, Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said. Thursday, he complimented McAteer on the “comprehensive” investigation, report and its presentation.

“We will engage our Mine, Health and Safety Committee and personnel from operating companies,” he said. “We will be spending hours going through the report, and we will also, in a couple of weeks, have the benefit of three more reports.”

He said safety is a shared goal of everyone — industry, lawmakers and citizens.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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