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. Ryan

    Personaly I think the media has as usall blown this out of proportaion. by looking at past records, past citations and blaming MSHA and the goverment. I work in a underground mine in western Colorado. in 2009 we had over 300 violations and over 50 emploiys hurt on the job with lost time but no one died there has only been 1 death at this mine in 30 years and that was a guy that had a heart attack violations dont mean anything you need to look at the roving company inspectors every under ground mine has them they are required to find these problums befor anything happens and befor MSHA can site you with a violation so leave the goverment out of this and go after the ceos if you want some one to blame

    April 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Theresa

    So sorry for the miners! But, greed is the name of the game. And living here in WV where the streams are filled with all the poisons and sediments from processing the coal; and all the bad drinking water and flooding of the Coal and Mud River, you would think that this State would learn. When will they ever learn?

    April 6, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Charity

    I may be wrong, but I believe it's cheaper for these mines, especially the small "punch hole" mines in WV, to pay the fines incurred for safety violations than it is to pay for the safety improvements mandated by law. So they pay the fines and hope nothing goes wrong and for the past couple years it's worked for them. I'm not saying it's right – my husband is an underground miner in WV – but if we can bring to light why mine operators aren't complying with the safety regs maybe we can find a solution and save lives.

    April 6, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Andrew

    First off I would like to extend my deepest regards to the family and friends involved in this disaster.

    Secondly, I would like to say that coal miners are proud educated workers. I myself work at a western underground coal mine and have an engineering degree in Mining Engineering from a higly regarded engineering university. We conduct a job that few poeple do and it keeps the lights on for everyone else – 50% of the electricity in the USA utilizes coal as a fuel source. Union or non-union, miners strive to work safe. They go to work under there own free will, just like the rest of the american workforce. Coal mines are only in business because Americans want cheap good and services as coal is the cheapest from of fuel for power generation. MSHA regulates UG coal mining more than any other industry – Period.

    Lastly, I would like to add a few thoughts. Where is the outcry for the fisherman that die every year fishing for crab? Where is the outcry for all the truck drivers that get killed on american highways delivering societies goods every year? Where is the outcry for all the farmers that die growing food for everyone every year? I dont see everyone boycoting crab, I dont see everyone lobbying for better highways, I dont see everyone offering to pay more for food so farmers can afford to by newer-safer equipment. Just remember where part of the power comes from to light your home, the power to run the computer you are ultimately using to read this post. A world without coal would be very dark, very cold or hot, and very exspensive.

    April 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Gary Box

    I realize this is the engineer in me talking, but we fly combat aircraft from half way around the world. Why do we send ANYONE underground? This is an industry ripe for major rethinking with a white sheet of paper.

    April 6, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jameson

    I cannot believe that people bringing politics into this. Are you so scared you're going to lose Congress in the fall you have to say this garbage about the deaths of miners? I am a registered independent and did vote for Obama but those blaming these deaths on conservatives are pathetic. You all need help...professional help.

    It's time to get off coal. Environmental yahoo's have had decades to make financially viable alternative energy sources and have failed miserable. It's time to start building modern nuclear plants and get the miners out of the ground once and for all. Yes I know job loses...would you rather lose your job or your life?

    April 6, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. sameeker

    there needs to be serious reform in the corporate justice system.

    If an accident happens at a subsideary company, the responsibility and liability goes all the way to the parent company.

    If there is fraud or safety violations, the same applies.

    If there is criminal activity, ALL persons responsible go to prison and forfeit their family assetts.

    Fines should be a percentage of the total company profits, including the parent organizetion and all subsidearies.

    April 6, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. bobby

    Coal mining is a dangerous occupation. While that does not excuse safety violations, just because of the system miners are dealing with underground with gasses flowing and dust it is impossible to say that all accidents could be prevented. Oversight by the government is also part of the problem, because politics will always be involved. It is sad when something like this happens and you would think we would learn from every incident but it looks like we do not.

    April 6, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. APV

    The market solution to this problem is that mining employees should go find an employer with a better safety record. If this mine had more than a 100 safety violations, the employees should have quit. Mining companies will have to attract workers with their safety features.

    April 6, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. coalminer's daughter

    First, my thoughts and prayers are with all of the miners, the families, and the friends. For the ones taken, no words could ever touch the emotions that spill from my heart for the family and friends. The rescued, I pray that you have quick recoveries and all that you could need during your recoveries. For the four still missing, I pray that one of God's angels has you held safely within his wings until his human angels (the rescuers) can reach you.
    My father, stepfather, brother, and two uncles all work in the mines. I know the daily fear that anyone with a loved miner has. I also know that some mines worry about the miners. I have NEVER heard anyone say Massy cares. The men you go under with care, that is all that saves lives at Massy.

    April 6, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Erin

    My husband, father and brother are all coal miners for ICG the same coal mine that owns the Sago Mine. After the devastating news about the WV mine that took the lives of 25 men so far, I asked my husband how he felt. Ofcourse, your heart goes out to the families he replied but like many of them families they know and I know the risks we take in order to provide for our family. I asked him about how the media portrays the mine violations in the past and his response was on any given day if the same tragedy struck here they to would be scrutinized for their violations and fines. There is not a coal mine that exists that doesn't get fined. Somethings always wrong no matter how good you try to fix things. I asked him if he still felt safe and his response was yes, you focus on the positive not the negative before going underground. Please don't take it as I am trying to lesson the lost of life because I am not in any way shape or form. My heart aches for these families and I will pray for them that they find peace in knowing that there loved ones are together in heaven. No matter how it happens whenever someone we love dies we always look for someone to blame. In this case they blame the company these men worked for. I know my husband is very proud of the job he does and he thinks of his co workers as his brothers. Mining has been unsafe for years this is not something that started happening yesterday, but I believe they are making progress in advancing mine safety. God bless all miners past and present and future.

    April 7, 2010 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
  12. Chilly

    Unfortunately, since the miners are merely pawns used by the coal kings, safety will not be an issue unless the safety of the owners and executives themselves is at stake. If there were some sort of requirement that the owner had to spend at least an hour every day down in the mine, not just at the mouth of the mine, but deep down inside with the miners, then you would start to see all kinds of safety improvements in a hurry.

    April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am | Report abuse |
  13. jim

    I personaly feel sure that had it not been for the former Bush & Cheney Adminstrations forms of deregulations that have been so pervasive throught out the entire country within each an nearly every industry sector to the point that state an federal inspectors havvent actually been allowed to actuly perform their duty's of inspections an had the state / state allowed for the proper implemention of the laws a regulations that are supposely to govern such industry's that perhaps this mine disaster possibly could have been prevented in my own personal opinion . i also feel that there just isn't the stomach for the implention an enforcement of regulations by either the state politicians or the federal politicians as that they have cow towed to business for so longer that in this case it has been the indirect cause behind this particular disaster.

    fact i do not an have not never worked in the coal indsutry my above statement is predeciated on observerences from other state agencys only an the above statement is only my own personal opinion thank you

    April 7, 2010 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
  14. jim


    I am in 1000% agreement with your posting on here an i feel sure that your assumption is 100 % correct as that state politicians an federal politicians have allowed for the completed deregulations of every state an federal agency that there is within this country since the previous Bush & Cheney Adminstrations to the point that no industry or coporation can be held libile for anything that they do to it's workfoorce the current american worker had may as well be working in china or india when it come to workplace protection or their rights or their safety . It is all about a coporate bottom line an profits an because of the politicial clout that these coporations are being allowed to weild no american any longer has any workplace right whats so evre in my opinion . the coporations have been allowed to be union busting for years an accidents of this nature are just part of the resulting conquences for it thank you

    April 7, 2010 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  15. Lee Isenberg

    We used to ask " What will it take to safeproof these mines for these men?" DO WE KNOW NOW...When so many of these coal mines do not meet the requirements for safety, why are they not shut down until they do?....Could it possibly have something to do with PROFITS?.....Nah big business would never be so callous

    April 7, 2010 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
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