April 6th, 2010
01:47 PM ET

Reaction to mine disasters: Wake-up calls, cries for action

The explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine killed at least 25 people.

An explosion at a Massey Energy Co. coal mine in West Virginia killed at least 25 workers, the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in 25 years. It came days after five miners were killed and 115 were rescued in northern China when a rush of underground water flooded the Wangjialing coal mine.

The two recent disasters on opposite sides of the world raise these questions why do these incidents keep happening, when will we learn from them and how can we stop them?

For Davitt McAteer, the former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, the answer is clear. McAteer, who investigated the 2006 Sago mine disaster, also in West Virginia, said the government and coal companies must have more transparency regarding mine safety issues, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“We are not doing enough, nationwide. Four hundred fifteen active underground mines nationwide are required to have added better communication systems. As of two weeks ago, only 34 had installed fully operational systems of communication.

"That was defining of Sago. That was one of the first things that we are not doing enough and we know how to remove methane and control dust problems and the fact that we had an explosion with methane or dust suggests that we are not doing enough to protect miners.”

McAteer isn't the only one saying enough isn't being done to protect those who risk their lives each day.

A U.S. Labor Department inspector general report published days before the latest West Virginia disaster said the federal government mine inspection agency was doing a poor job nationwide of retraining longtime safety inspectors faced with the task of ensuring conditions are safe. (Read the report [PDF])

Nobody knows what happened in West Virginia, or if any of the previous problems will come into play.

The West Virginia Gazette's Coal Tattoo blog, which covers "Minings mark on our world," says this week's incident highlights the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act's reforms, which legislators enacted after the Sago disaster to try to protect miners.

The reforms, the blog reports, were supposed to create sealed off areas that would contain air that would be breathable in a disaster similar to the rescue chamber in the Upper Big Branch mine where Monday's explosion occurred. But a federal official told reporters at the West Virginia disaster scene, according to The Washington Post, that he didn't think the miners had time to make it to the chamber.

About two weeks ago, the main blogger on Coal Tattoo, Ken Ward Jr., reported about one in 10 coal mines nationwide had the upgraded communication tools that were asked for under the reforms.

"West Virginia is doing a little better. About 16 percent of the state's underground mines have installed and fully operational systems. But because of the state's larger number of underground mines, that percentage still means that 121 mines here do not have advanced communications and tracking. Twenty-three out of 144 West Virginia mines have complied, according to the MSHA data."

The sentiment on the blog following Monday's explosion echoed a still-growing frustration with where safety regulations stand and a troubling lack of understanding for who needs to step up.

It's a feeling happening in China, too. Amid the overwhelming relief of the miracle rescue of most miners came a slew of editorials in the China Daily newspaper arguing the disaster was another "déjà vu" moment that hasn't taught the country any lesson.

"Why have similar accidents failed to teach coalmine leaders a lesson about work safety?

"Work-safety watchdogs and government departments must find an answer to this and find out a way to make coalmine owners or officials consider work safety a top priority."

As officials investigate the disasters in China and West Virginia, it's clear the public's anger and demand for increased safety comes down to one thing being able to prevent needless deaths  such as 62-year-old Benny Willingham, who was killed Monday in West Virginia. His relatives say they, like almost all miners and their families, knew the risks but it doesn't make his death any easier to accept or stop the need for changes.

"It's scary. It's just really, really scary," said Tiffany Ellis, Willingham's granddaughter. "My stepdad also does this, and this is just a wake-up call to me. I've seen it happen before, but I never imagined I'd be here today, telling my story about it."

The big question is will it be a wake-up call for others as well?

 

soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. FatSean

    I'm sure the miners here are happy that they had a job a few months longer because their employer was not forced by government regulation to buy expensive safety equipment which would require firing workers to ensure profits.

    /joking

    April 7, 2010 at 9:54 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. In Kentucky

    The old-time miners had a name for miners who defend the company when it's putting the workers' lives in unnecessary danger - "company suck." Seeing the posts here from miners and their family members, the cars with Friends of Coal license plates and throngs of miners with "Coal Mining - Our Future" T-shirts makes me believe there are now more company sucks than there are independent, thinking miners. These safety violations endanger your lives. How can you defend a company that takes shortcuts in the name of profits? There is more to life than money, but too many people in our country have forgotten that. Miners need to stand up and demand that their companies be decent corporate citizens. I've had one family member refuse to go into the mine and shut it down because of safety concerns. If everyone else would do the same thing, these problems would be fixed and we would have 25 or 30 people at a time killed.

    April 7, 2010 at 10:15 am | Report abuse | Reply
  3. In Kentucky

    The old-time miners had a name for miners who defend the company when it's putting the workers' lives in unnecessary danger – "company suck." Seeing the posts here from miners and their family members, the cars with Friends of Coal license plates and throngs of miners with "Coal Mining – Our Future" T-shirts makes me believe there are now more company sucks than there are independent, thinking miners. These safety violations endanger your lives. How can you defend a company that takes shortcuts in the name of profits? There is more to life than money, but too many people in our country have forgotten that. Miners need to stand up and demand that their companies be decent corporate citizens. I've had one family member refuse to go into the mine and shut it down because of safety concerns. If everyone else would do the same thing, these problems would be fixed and we would not have 25 or 30 people at a time killed.

    April 7, 2010 at 10:17 am | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Carrie

    Nothing is being done to protect the safety of these miners. They slave at work to provide for big companies who don't care if they live or die. Anything to make a buck Massey! Shame on you! I hold you responsible for the miners deaths. Their blood is on your hands, I hope the govt. shuts you down.

    April 7, 2010 at 10:57 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Buck

    Maybe its time to start retraining the remaining miners on how to produce and install windmills. It would be better for all.

    April 7, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dusty

    People want action! They want results! How could this happen? Let's ask Sen. Robert Byrd; senior senator from West Virginia for 52 years. For 52 years the coal industry has supported Byrd and he has watched their back. So Sen. Byrd, why are the mines so dangerous? Why haven't you protected your very own citizens? You've protected the mega-mining and power companies. Is it because of all the money they have contributed to you since 1959? Shame on you Byrd. So now you'll pound your fist on your desk and demand an investigation, maybe even a fact finding committee. Thanks for your help Byrd.

    April 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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