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Published: Sunday, 4/18/2010

Safe mines

FRIDAY'S one-day mining stand-down, called by West Virginia's governor to force the industry to review health and safety procedures, was more symbolic than meaningful. What really matters is how mine operators, regulators, and workers do their jobs from this day forward.

The April 5 explosion that took 29 lives in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., has cast a harsh light not only on coal giant Massey Energy Co., with its history of violations, and CEO Don Blankenship, whose brash public comments undercut his professed concern for safety. It has also raised questions about the adequacy of federal law and oversight.

While investigations on the specific cause of the explosion will take months to complete, recent reports on Massey's safety culture and the inability of federal regulators to take strong action show that the industry, particularly in nonunion mines, has the upper hand. This can lead to operations that put production over safety and leave untold workers at greater risk.

Since the start of 2009, federal safety inspectors had to halt work 61 times in the Upper Big Branch mine. Between 2007 and 2009, the mine more than doubled its rate of nonfatal lost-time injuries - from 2.41 per 200,000 hours worked to 5.81. In the same period, the national average declined from 4.75 to 4.03.

The mine also has a pattern of inspection citations for inadequate ventilation, conditions that can lead to a methane explosion. In 2006, the mine produced more than 1 million cubic feet of methane in one day, which, under the law, requires a spot inspection every five days. Federal records showed, however, that inspections were done on average every 10 days, even though there was no indication in the reports that methane levels had dropped.

A New York Times analysis showed that while the industry was hit with $123.4 million in major fines since 2005, only 8 percent ($10.2 million) has been collected because mine owners are more aggressively challenging the enforcement actions of federal inspectors. This leads to procedural tie-ups that can block or delay the remedial work needed to make mines safe.

On Thursday, President Obama met in the Oval Office with mine safety officials and afterwards pinned the blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion mostly on Massey. He called it "a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue."

While we're glad to see the President unleash the departments of Labor and Justice on the investigation, Massey subsidiaries have seen criminal convictions before. Still, 29 workers died this month in the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

If the President, Mr. Blankenship, coal families, and all their representatives in Congress really want to end such tragedies, then not only do mine operations deserve tough scrutiny, but so do the nation's mining laws and the quality of federal oversight.



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