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Doubts Persist in Coal Country That Reforms Will Finally Succeed


President Obama calls for stricter mining regulations in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 15. (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

Beckley, W.Va. — “It’s unfortunate, but every mine safety law we have on the books today was written in the blood of coal miners.”

[Environment1]So said Rep. Nick** **Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, just hours after an underground blast in his district killed 29 coal miners earlier this month. It’s a sentiment uttered frequently in coal country, and it’s tragically relevant again as policymakers in both Washington and Charleston are vowing to prevent the next disaster with new laws, regulations and enforcement tactics designed to improve mine safety.

On the ground in Southern West Virginia, however, many doubts persist — with good reason. For more than four decades, members of the proud mining community here have watched from afar as Congress installed a series of sweeping new oversights and precautions in the wake of some horrific mining accident, only to have another come down the pike a few years later. In short, they’ve seen this picture before, and they don’t like how it ends.

Bill Price, a native of West Virginia’s coal country who now organizes for the Sierra Club on coal issues, summarized the trend tersely: “Somebody has to die first.”

The history backs his claim. The Farmington, W.Va., blast of 1968, for example, led to a 1969 overhaul of mining safety measures. A series of fatal Appalachian accidents in the 1970s catalyzed the mining reforms of 1977. Two back-to-back coal disasters in West Virginia in 2006 cleared the way for passage of the MINER Act later that year. And now, in the wake of this month’s deadly blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, policymakers — both state and federal — have reacted with investigations, promises of tighter regulations, and vows of “Never Again.”

“We have the resources,” fumed Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). “These tragedies, on this scale, should no longer be happening.”

That they are happening, many West Virginians argue, owes to a series of factors that have conspired, often with tragic effect.

  • Lax Oversight: Mine-safety advocates have been arguing for years that the ties between many regulators — state and federal — and the companies they’re overseeing have grown too close, allowing the companies to skirt safety rules as inspectors look away. Lawrence Richmond, 85, a World War II vet who worked in the mines of Southern West Virginia for 34 years, said this week that that trend, though hardly recent, should change. “A lot of those inspectors overlooked things in order to keep mines operating,” Richmond said. “So if they run into some coal company that’s not obeying the laws, then it’s gonna have to be shut down, and the state’s gonna have to enforce it. That’s all there is to it.”
  • Disregard for the Rules: Ostensibly, mine inspections are considered “surprise” events because the regulators often arrive to the gates unannounced. But miners have testified that there’s still plenty of time to clean the place up before those inspectors get underground.”We would know the minute they [inspectors] would come on the hill. We’d know the minute they’d get ready to come underground. We’d know what section they were going to,” one Massey deep miner said recently. “And that would give the people up on the section time to get their ventilation right, to try to get into what they should be doing all along, and stay in compliance with the laws.”
  • Media Indifference: Although nearly half of the nation’s electricity is generated by coal, there remains an odd sense — both among the general public and Capitol Hill lawmakers — that mining safety is somehow an issue local to coal-producing regions. Indeed, although Raleigh County was swamped with reporters in the immediate wake of the Upper Big Branch blast — and many will surely be covering President Obama’s visit to Beckley Sunday to remember the deceased — the story faded from the front pages after all the miners were found.”You guys just disappeared,” Jerry Massie, field representative for the United Mine Workers of America’s District 29 branch in Beckley, told a reporter this week.
  • Sheer power of the Coal Industry: Coal companies — no fans of tighter safety measures — hold tremendous sway over West Virginia’s lawmakers, who have accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the industry over the years. Critics say that it’s no coincidence that those same lawmakers have a long history of protecting the companies from tighter regulations.”This state is bought and sold by the coal companies,” said Chuck Nelson, a former Massey miner who’s since become an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
  • Poorly Targeted Reforms: Because congressional mining reforms have most often arrived in reaction to specific accidents, they’ve tended to target specific problems while ignoring others. For example, the 2006 MINER Act, which focused heavily on new requirements for keeping trapped miners alive after blasts, has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent those blasts to begin with.”There was nothing that come out of that MINER Act in 2006 that helped these [UBB] miners,” said Denny Tyler, an electrician who has contracted with Massey and now runs an anti-mountaintop removal website. “Nothing.”

This month’s tragedy has altered some of these powerful dynamics, at least temporarily. Indeed, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), a former coal broker with a long history of defending the industry, called recently for the state’s mines to cease production for a day in order to examine their safety measures.

“In a deep mine explosion, there’s no way to protect anybody in the mine. All you can do is prevent it from happening,” Manchin (D) said last week. “What we’re trying to do is, in their honor, re-evaluate everything we do and the practices we use to make it safe.

“Not one person should have to work in unsafe conditions,” he added. “Everyone should expect to go home at night.”

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