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. Terry From West Texas

    Conservatives would assure us that too much is being done to assure miner safety. They would deregulate the industry altogether. Liberals would regulate the industry with stricter regulations and stricter enforcement of regulations.

    So which side are you on? Conservatives would tolerate more miner deaths, Liberals would want fewer. Choose a side. You can't have it both ways.

    April 6, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mitsy

    No, enough is NOT being done for miner safety. That said, there should have NEVER been even one more death due to lax safety measures in the mining business. Have people really forgotten the Sago Mine Tragedy in January 2006? It captured the news headlines for weeks. Seems that the owners of these mines don't learn much from past mistakes, do they?

    April 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Terry Dowell

    It amazes me how our country dont even blink an eye when we abort millions of babies in our country and how we have numerous accidents on our nations highways were people lose their lives. But when we have an accident at a coal mine we want to persacute owners and workers of these establishments. We have fewer fatalities in minining than we do in retail workers, farming, construction, but we still want to do away with the miner. These men and women work hard every day and strive to work safe and our the most regulated occupation going. The media wants to display miners as studid and ignorant people, because they know nothing about this occupation and the American people will believe anything they put out on the subject.

    April 6, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John Anderson

    Save your breath. Every time something like this happens, people talk about increased mine safety. And then the TV crews go away and nothing ever gets done. The coal companies have always controlled West Virginia government and politics. It will happen again sometime soon, and Massey Energy will offer their condolences to the families in the same prepared statement. Again.

    April 6, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. WVgirl83

    Notice how all these accidents happen as Non-Union mines....my father in law works in a union mine and there have been no deaths or serious injuries in over 30 years. Union mines go above and beyond the safty laws and regulations. Don Blankenship the CEO of Massey Energy Co. has done everything in his power to bring the unions down because all he cares about it the "bottom line" aka MONEY. Just an FYI for y'all.

    April 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. D-rod

    Does anyone think that after years of Conservatism, where business friendly excutives are appointed to head agencies such as the Mine and Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, EPA, FDA, and then these very agencies are gutted because "government is too big" or "too inefficient" that maybe that's why we have these problems? These agencies agendas get skewed so as to cut corners, and of course after the overhaul of these agencies there's not enough inspectors or regulators to keep them honest. All done in the name of profit.

    Is it any wonder our food makes us sick from E-Coli & Mad Cow disease, prescription drugs are making us sick or worse, killing us, and we just saw the worst Wall Street crash since the Great Depression? Could it possibly be that nobody is able to keep us safe and that this is by design and all for corporate profit?

    April 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. thedish

    I hope the families of the victims retain the best amulance chasers and sue the owners of the mines for millions. These people work so hard in the most dangerous situations. From what I read they were a plethora of violations by the ocmpany. May the victims and their families find peace and solace someday. .

    April 6, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Raleigh coal miner

    Very interesting. McAteer and Ward are the people you talk to. Neither has ever run a coal mine or worked in a coal mine. No one, not one person in the coal industry, wants something like this to happen. For these two idiots to start running their mouths when no one yet knows what happened is incredulous. None of the new laws and regulations that were inacted after SAGO would have saved one life at SAGO and none of them saved one life here.
    Hold the finger pointing and the blame game until we know what happened and then do something constructive.

    April 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kentuckian

    So long as corporations own Republican politicians, American workers will die needless deaths. If you vote for candidates with an R after their names, you are an accessory to these deaths. It's time to drain the swamp and clean out the evildioers who do not work for the people.

    April 6, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bonnie Siegfried

    There should NEVER be fines for unsafe conditions Production should be STOPPED immediately until the problem is fixed. It seems it may have been easier to pay $400,000 in fines last year than fix the problem. Shame on this company

    April 6, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. dilley

    Everyone knows that mining coal is inherently dangerous work and most folks know coal is a necessary source of energy at least for the time being. The question is how many miners have to die either by sudden accidents or lingering asphyxiation from lung disease before adequate safety measures are implemented?

    In 1969 it took a big mine accident for MSHA to get started in the first place. It seems a shame that people have to die and families have to be ripped apart before anything substantive gets done about safety practices in a necessary, dangerous job.

    April 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Richard Heater

    Safety has been a concern for how many years ? But will never happen as owners are more worried about profit $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    April 6, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ky miner

    I agree with the post by Raleigh coal miner, this was a horrible accident and until facts are know about how and why the blast occurred, it is pointless to blame anyone. Accidents happen just like driving a car or flying a plane and just because they do it doesn't mean anyone was doing anything wrong and safety warnings were being ignored. Find out why the explosion happened and work to make sure it doesn't happen again. Underground coal mining is inherently dangerous and new dangerous develop in areas you have traveled or worked a 1000 times. These accidents can happen at the best and worst mines as well as Union or Non-union. Please pray for the four remaining miners, the mine rescuers and all the miners families. These people work the dangerous jobs so we can enjoy some of the finer things in life and i thank them for that every day.

    April 6, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Logan Countian

    Everyone in West Virginia knows that coal profits are the main concern. Massey Coal is non-union and a corporate monster. Check the safety violations at this mine. Massey cares nothing for its miners and their families. Our politicians are owned by the coal barons. I wish people from more enlightened areas would come down here and see what the coal companies are doing. They are tearing our mountains down literally as well as poisoning our streams and wells. It is like something from a past century. I pray for the families of the men who are dead and the four miners still inside.

    April 6, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Richard Heater

    My grandfather died in a mine in Oxford, NJ many years ago, Saftey will never be a isue in this day and age, as owers and employers are worred about money only, we are only a number to oweners and we don't matter, that's all this country is about any more, I worked at American Can. Co. for 35 years, I started one week after I got out out of the Navy, gave them the best of my life and when the cut backs started I injured my back on the job working alone and had to have two surgeries, a short tme latter I was fired from my job. Way to go American employers, and you wonder why we we don't care any more and don't want to impove our work, I used to look forward to going to work, I loved my job, but things sure changed over the years, they just don't care about employees any more.
    You Just Have Love The American Way!!! Not!!!!!!!!!!

    April 6, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
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