On April 5, 29 miners at Massey Energys Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia were killed in the worst mine blast in the United States in 40 years. The mine had a history of repeated safety violations. Parts or all of the mine were ordered closed more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010.
Since the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, federal inspections have increased at 89 coal mines that have a history of repeated safety violations. Federal regulators also say they have increased their use of orders to shut down mines until violations are fixed. These measures have had little impact on safety as the coal operators continue to speed up production.
Since the Upper Big Branch explosion in April, 10 men have died in nine coal mines from northern West Virginia to southern Illinois. Another four surface miners have also been killed in the same period.
A Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspector issued the 87th citation in two years to the Loveridge No. 22 mine in West Virginia on July 26 for roof and wall problems. Three days later, miner Jessie Adkins, 39, was killed when a chunk of rock 16 feet long and four-and-a-half feet high broke away from the wall and crushed him.
With fewer and fewer union mines and little being done to organize miners, coal operators suffer almost no consequences for miners killed on the job.
After coal companies receive a citation from MSHA, they have the right to contest it and pay no fine until the case is resolved. This means penalties can be delayed for years.
In the face of increased citations from government inspectors, companies are appealing more often and the backlog of cases against mine owners is on the rise. The number of unresolved safety appeals has gone from 16,600 at the time of the Upper Big Branch mine blast to 18,100 to date.
MSHA also takes months to investigate deaths and issue a ruling whether or not the company is responsible. In some cases, so much time has passed the inspectors have retired. Often they, or witnesses, no longer remember the details of the event.
Less than three weeks after the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, Justin Travis, 27, and Michael Carter, 28, were killed at the Dotiki Mine in Kentucky when a huge section of the roof collapsed. After a five-month investigation, MSHA issued a ruling that Allied Resource Partners should have taken greater measures to support the roof. The company faces no fine until it decides whether or not to contest the ruling.
Part of the Dotiki Mine, had been shut down at least six times in the months leading up to the deaths of Travis and Carter. Each shutdown was due to inadequate roof bolting.
Massey Energy was again cited for safety violations September 28 at its Seng Creek Powellton mine in West Virginia when they were making deep cutscutting large quantities of coal without stopping to move ventilation equipment or install adequate roof supports.
As the leader in contesting citations, Massey Energy is fighting 39 percent of the 5,880 citations and 83 percent of the $6.9 million in fines that have been levied from January to July.
Experienced miners and their families know the answer is not additional regulations against coal companies, which are always pushing to maximize their profits.
In 2006, 12 men were killed in the West Virginia Sago Mine explosion. Like after every major disaster the government adopted new measures then, as with the Upper Big Branch Mine, but the death toll continues year after year.
I dont want to hear another politician say they will make sure it never happens again, Deborah Hamner, whose husband George died in the Sago Mine, told the Washington Post. Its time for miners to fight for safety. Washington isnt going to do it.
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