Last April, 29 workers died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Investigators believe that a combination of coal dust, methane gas and safety issues with the mine all contributed to the disaster. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is still investigating the specific cause of the accident.
The New York Times reported that in the year before the explosion, the mine had been cited eight times for "substantial" violations. Specifically, the mine failed to properly control methane levels through ventilation systems and improperly calibrated methane monitors. Investigators are focusing on the monitors and methane detectors to determine whether they were tampered with or disabled prior to the explosion.
A press release issued by Massey Energy, the company that owns and runs the mine, cited methane buildup as one possible cause of the explosion. According to Massey, the buildup was so intense that it "overwhelmed normal safety systems."
Since 2008, the mine was cited 17 times for failing to keep methane monitors in proper working condition according to The Wall Street Journal. These monitors are designed to alert workers of a 1 percent concentration of methane gas and automatically shut down mining equipment at a level of 2 percent. Methane typically becomes explosive at a 10 to 15 percent concentration and officials are focusing on why no warning was issued to the workers.
This disaster comes four years after a pair of accidents killed 14 workers in other West Virginia mining accidents. More recently, a mine worker was killed in northern West Virginia when he was struck by a section of the mine wall that came loose. The Associate Press notes that this was the 42nd death in a U.S. coal mine this year.
New Legislation Designed To Improve Safety, Hold Companies Accountable
In response to the Upper Big Branch mining disaster and other mining accidents, the House Committee on Education and Labor voted, by a 30 to 17 vote, to move a mining safety bill out of committee and on to the full House for debate.
According to the bill sponsors, its goals are to "improve compliance with mine and occupational safety and health laws, empower workers to raise safety concerns, and prevent future mine and other workplace tragedies."
Originally called The Miner Health and Safety Act of 2010, it was renamed the Robert C. Byrd Miner Health and Safety Act after the late West Virginia Senator. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Carte Goodwin, both of West Virginia.
The Chairman of the Committee, George Miller, D-California, says the bill will improve mine safety in several key areas. If passed by the House, the bill would:
- Hold irresponsible mine operators accountable by increasing criminal and civil penalties
- Give the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) better enforcement tools
- Protect miners who report unsafe conditions
- Modernize safety requirements in coal mines
- Increased accountability for MSHA
- Make mines that have repeated and serious violations safe
Opposition And Support For The Bill
Though the bill is supported by Democrats and the Obama Administration, many in the mining industry, including the American Society of Safety Engineers, Massey Energy and most Republicans oppose the measure.
The U.S Chamber of Commerce has also expressed opposition to the bill. In a letter to Chairman Miller, the Chamber claims that the bill introduces vague standards for criminal penalties, discourages settlements and fosters a lack of cooperation between employers, MSHA and OSHA. While supporters of the bill cite this as a necessary response to the Big Branch tragedy, the Chamber notes that the investigation is still ongoing and any legislative response to the disaster appears to be premature.
Particularly troubling for the Chamber is the focus the bill puts on criminal liability and penalties. The letter cites a "misguided theory" that more penalties will lead to improved worker safety. Instead of forcing companies to accept the penalties and pay the fines, the increase is so dramatic that it will create an incentive for employers to fight the fine.
But supporters of the bill note that mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, and more needs to be done to address perpetual offenders like Massey. Chairman Miller argues that the Big Branch disaster is a perfect example of how the current law is inadequate. Massey, according to Miller, was fined millions of dollars over the years, but it did little to change the way the company operated the mine. The bill would allow MSHA to shut down a mine once a pattern of violations is established. The mine could only be reopened if it meets strict "rehabilitation" requirements.
Miller also cites fears of Massey employees losing their jobs for reporting safety violations. Massey, according to employees, used a system of fear and intimidation to keep workers quiet. The hope of Chairman Miller and other supporters of the bill is that this legislation will promote an atmosphere of safety and change the culture of the mining industry as a whole.