By Mannix Porterfield
In the 15 months leading up to the Upper Big Branch explosion that left 29 workers dead in Raleigh County nearly three years ago, the mine’s owner had been hit with 639 violations.
Hoping to avert such disasters, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has beefed up its standards for issuing a “pattern of violations,” a step that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., emphasizes was borrowed from his proposed safety bill.
Rockefeller originally offered the bill after the April 5, 2010, blast at Upper Big Branch, a mine once owned by the former Massey Energy. Two years later, the senator crafted a revised version.
Soon, the senator intends to reintroduce the measure, known as the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act.
In a field hearing in Beckley, shortly after the worst mining disaster in four decades, coal miners employed by Massey Energy told members of a special congressional panel that they felt under pressure to ignore safety violations out of fear of being terminated.
Upper Big Branch had never been placed on a “pattern of violations” status. In fact, the senator pointed out, no mine had been given such a designation since MSHA initially was given the power to do so in 1977.
“It was clear after Upper Big Branch that some companies were violating lifesaving mine safety requirements over and over again,” Rockefeller said.
“I said then that I would work to reform and strengthen these rules so that mine operators who are repeat offenders stop shirking their responsibilities and start running mines that are fit for people to work in, and I’m keeping up that fight.”
Rockefeller said the UBB tragedy exposed a flaw in the “pattern of violations” rule, since some mine owners consistently violated the law and jeopardized their employees.
“This absolutely shouldn’t be allowed to happen, and I have fought to strengthen mine safety rules and laws so that repeat offenders are held accountable,” the senator said.
“MSHA’s rule is a really important step for improving mine safety, and it’s great news that the rule includes some provisions from my mine safety bill, which I’ll reintroduce early in this new Congress. Passing a strong mine safety bill will help reinforce MSHA’s rule by including additional provisions to address miens with ‘patterns of violations,’ including doublting the number of inspections on this mines.”
Rockefeller suggested that efforts to enhance mining safety cannot end there.
“We still have more to do,” he said. “Our miners and their families deserve nothing less.”
The Upper Big Branch tragedy near Montcoal was the worst mining accident since 1970, when 38 workers perished at Finley Coal Co.’s Nos. 15 and 16 mines in Hyden, Ky.
In its findings in late 2011, MSHA levied $10.8 million in penalties while issuing 169 citations. In the aftermath of the disaster, Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources.
Under the new MSHA rule, the “potential pattern of violation” stage is eliminated, meaning coal operators are mandated to immediately improve safety policies. Before that, owners could rely on this in-between status to delay enforcing full “pattern of violation” citations.
What’s more, mine owners no longer can use excessive lawsuits to delay the “pattern of violation” status.
“This rule is an important step forward for improving safety in mines across West Virginia and the country,” Rockefeller said.
“I’m glad to see that the new rules include some of the key reforms from my mine safety bill. Too many miners have lost their lives on the job, and I am continuing to push for my comprehensive mine safety bill, for our current and future miners, and their families. This is a preventable tragedy that no family should have to face.”
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