Five years ago this week, powerful explosions ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy in Boone and Raleigh counties in West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners died and one was seriously injured as this violent explosion rocketed through two and a half miles of underground tunnels at 3:02 p.m. on April 5, 2010. The explosion was no accident, but the result of a disregard of basic safety principles as well as federal and state regulations.
But the regulators of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operators complied with minimum fundamental safety requirement. In profile, this disaster harkens back to the 1907 Monongah mine disaster, which killed over 500 miners. Both resulted from excessive accumulation of coal dust and a failure to control ignition sources. The 103 years separating these disasters does not obscure the fact that when mine operators neglect basic safety principles, miners perish.
Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, the United States Congress has failed to take any action.
The West Virginia Legislature has in fact moved in the opposite direction, recently weakening existing mine safety laws.
The enforcement agencies have tinkered with their regulation efforts, but not addressed major concerns, such as the increase in black lung: In the autopsies of the Upper Big Branch miners, 71 percent of the victims showed Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP) compared to the national prevalence rate for active underground miners of 3.2 percent, and several of these victims had less than 10 years’ mining experience. Still, MSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and West Virginia have failed to take adequate preventive action.
Five teams investigated the disaster, and four of the five concluded that the company’s neglect and disregard of basic safety practice directly lead to the deaths. Massey’s report did not reach that conclusion.
But where are we today? At the end of 2014, MSHA rightly touted the fact that the number of coal mine deaths was at 16 — an alltime low.
However, it has been suggested that part of that decline is due to the dramatic decrease in coal mine activity. In 2013, for the first time in 20 years, U.S. coal production fell below 1 billion tons, 3.1 percent below 2012 output. In the past three years, 24 U.S. coal companies have gone bust. Domestic coal consumption in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and the output of American coal mines dropped back to a 10-year low in 2013 as the demand for export coal weakened. Employment in coal mines is also significantly down: decreasing 10.3 percent in 2012 alone. The price of coal for both coking and thermal has declined significantly; in addition, the growth of coal fired generating capacity has slowed from 6.9 percent in 2010 to 2.7 percent in 2013.
The industry has strongly suggested that the Obama “War on Coal” is to blame, but even their own accountants tell another story. The decline by 80 percent in the price of natural gas since 2008 in the U.S. is the real villain. That is not to suggest that stiffer U.S. environmental regulation will not have an impact on coal use; notwithstanding some 21 states and industry groups have challenged EPA requirements before the Supreme Court on March 25, questioning when the EPA had to consider the cost of its measures against mercury and other byproducts at the time of rule-making or when regulatory standards are spelled out.
But despite this case’s outcome, coal faces a difficult future, with demand declining both domestically and internationally.
But where does that leave us in the area of mine safety and health?
Since 2010, the coal industry has blocked regulatory reform both nationally and within West Virginia. Any criticism or call for reform is viewed as an attack on the very existence of the industry. It refuses to negotiate reforms in health and safety and refuses to negotiate reforms in environmental matters.
This approach only increases the risk to miners. As coal companies feel the economic pinch from declining demand and increased competition, the inclination will be to cut costs largely in safety and health protections. Protections which have for decades borne the brunt of cost-cutting measures.
Miners, who themselves worry about employment and their families, are pressured not to push safety and health issues. Federal and state agencies, both regulatory and research, whose existence depends upon a viable industry, will be inclined to adopt lenient or a non-confrontational approach to enforcement. The result is greater risks to miners.
The coal industry is at yet another crossroads. It can either continue to adopt the last man standing approach or look to create solutions, first by addressing health and safety risks such as Black Lung, and secondly focusing on the realities of a new energy world in which coal can play an important but no longer dominant role.
Miners, their families, and others who have sacrificed so much for the coal industry deserve this approach.
As one coal miner’s widow once said, “You cannot replace a man nor what he might have accomplished or what difference he would have made in his children’s lives.” The 29 men who died in the Upper Big Branch disaster ranged in age from 61 to 20.
Davitt McAteer headed the Governor’s Independent Investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and is former Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and former Acting Solicitor of Labor. He served as Vice President of Wheeling Jesuit University, retiring in 2012. He is an attorney and lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va.