In Wake Of West Virginia Mining Disaster, Safety Laws Still Lack Teeth

It was over a year ago when a massive explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine 30 miles south of Charleston. As the dust cleared, the scope of the tragedy came into focus: 29 West Virginia coal miners lost their lives, making the Upper Big Branch explosion the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades.

Performance Coal Company, the corporation responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine and a subsidiary of mining giant Massey Energy, had been cited eight times by federal regulators in the year preceding the explosion for substantial violations relating to methane control plans. However, records show that the company was actively contesting the steepest fines, refusing to pay them or implement safety corrections.

Following the tragic Upper Big Branch blast, lawmakers in West Virginia and Washington vowed to strengthen protections for miners. In addressing the nation, President Obama himself remarked that it was clear "more needs to be done" about mine safety. Even so, as the end of 2011 draws closer, little action has been taken in Congress to prevent mining accidents, leaving coal mining injuries an all too common occurrence in Charleston and other mining hubs.

Safety Bill Killed In Congress, West Virginia Laws Watered Down

Although passions raged immediately following the Upper Big Branch tragedy, federal lawmakers came up short on follow-through. A comprehensive bill was introduced in Congress that would have increased penalties for safety violations and made it easier to shut down mines with a history of safety problems. The bill also sought to establish protections for whistleblowers and broaden the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's investigative powers.

Yet, helped along by the mining industry's intensive lobbying efforts, entropy quickly took hold. Lawmakers moved on to the next headline-grabbing topic, and the bill quietly died on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, mine workers lacked the political clout to resurrect the defeated legislation, outgunned by the more than $21 million siphoned into lobbying efforts by mining company executives in 2010 alone.

Even at home, West Virginia miners' hopes for a safer work environment were dashed. Former governor Joe Manchin promised rapid action following the Upper Big Branch blast, but he failed to shepherd any mine safety package into law during his term. Governor Manchin's successor, Earl Ray Tomblin, did sign a pair of mine safety bills: one would have required mining equipment to be shut down when methane levels reached 1 percent, stricter than the federal standard of 2 percent, while the other was meant to protect whistleblowers who reported unsafe conditions in mines. However, by the time they reached Tomblin's desk, both bills had succumbed to the mining lobby – they had been watered down almost beyond recognition. In the end, neither bill mandated any safety reforms. Instead, they only called for further study of the substantive issues.

Regulators Step Up, But Enforcement Powers Limited

In the year following the Upper Big Branch disaster, Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors have ratcheted up enforcements efforts under existing laws, uncovering some 4,600 violations at 200 mining sites throughout the country. Several of the most at-risk mines were closed until safety concerns could be addressed, and a handful of the worst transgressors were even shut down permanently.

Still, many experts are cautious about overestimating the headway inspectors can make within the confines of the current regulatory scheme. The Upper Big Branch mine had itself amassed an astonishing 3,000 citations in the 15-year period before the explosion, with no apparent improvements to safety.

Many Preventable Mining Accidents Still Occurring Thanks To Lawmakers' Inaction

Coal mining is a dangerous profession; miners face hazards and hardships on a daily basis that most of us can scarcely imagine. But, even though some level of risk is inherent to the job, the miners who work hard to provide millions of Americans with energy deserve the fullest level of protection the law can provide.

In the first eight-and-a-half months of 2011, 14 coal miners have already been killed in accidents, several of them in West Virginia mines; at least some of these accidents could have been avoided. Until legal reforms are implemented, rather than prevention, injured coal miners or their families will have to settle for after-the-fact remedies available through a personal injury attorney following a cave-in, explosion, equipment malfunction or any other type of coal mining accident.

As for those directly affected by the Upper Big Branch calamity, a lingering sense of grief is compounded by growing frustration that more has not been done to keep other families from suffering similar tragedies. Fred Burgess, a retired miner himself, lost his stepson in the Upper Big Branch disaster; like many West Virginians, he is beginning to feel like his loved one died in vain.

"Every mine law ever wrote has been written in blood," Burgess told the Huffington Post following the defeat of the national mine safety bill in Congress, "but this time even that wasn't enough."