Whitesburg KY

Fighting bad actors

The Obama administration is proposing tougher mine safety regulation in the wake of the West Virginia explosion that killed 29 miners last April. The disaster highlighted hundreds of violations by the mine owner, Massey Energy, and the endemic failure of federal regulators to shut down the industry’s worst offenders.

Congress vowed to change things after the Upper Big Branch explosion, and then gave in, again, to Big Coal. The executive proposals would make it much harder for mine owners to game the violations process with extended appeals that let them keep operating and risking miners’ lives. A 34-year-old law providing for mine shutdowns has never been applied in the category of the worst offenders — a blight on industry and political appointees who shirked their oversight responsibilities.

Under the new regulations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration would be empowered to shut down a mine with a record of chronic safety violations — instead of waiting years for litigation to play out. Massey’s record was horrendous, and it was allowed to keep working dangerous mines like Upper Big Branch.

The Justice Department has criminal and civil investigations of the explosion. A preliminary finding by the mine safety agency has concluded that it was preventable but for manifold safety violations. The agency cited management’s failure to control risky coal dust, maintain ventilation safety and have adequate water sprays against machinery sparks that can ignite explosions.

Massey officials denied culpability, claiming that a sudden seepage of natural gas “overwhelmed” an adequately maintained ventilation system. “Reasonable minds can disagree,” Shane Harvey, Massey’s vice president, blithely asserted after federal inspectors concluded that there was no evidence to back the contention.

Such high-handedness from a serial offender makes it critical that the recently announced sale of Massey to an industry competitor in no way allows Massey to shed its culpability in the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The regulations would be effective in two months barring major changes, which we urge the administration to resist, whatever the political heat from Big Coal.

They are a stopgap step, according to Joseph Main, the mine agency director who says the broken safety system needs additional fixes from Congress. Legislation for tougher fines, whistleblower protection and public scrutiny of safety failures died last year. It is deemed a nonstarter in the new Republican controlled House, leaving the Obama administration as the main hope for miners.

— The New York Times

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