“Some pretty hard questions have got to be asked. The families need answers, and we, as a country, need answers. Something has gone drastically wrong – and we need to find out what it is, what happened, and we need to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand Minister of Conservation, on the loss of 29 miners at the Pike River coal mine in November 2010.1
“MSHA is launching a full investigation to determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, on the loss of 12 miners in the Sago mine, in Buckhannon, West Virginia, January 4, 2006.2
“We just have got to find the answers to what caused this and to make sure whatever it takes that this never happens again,” West Virginia Governor (now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin III, said on April 11, 2010.3
Following all man-made disasters, such as coal mine explosions, government officials stand in front of the public and grieving family members and promise to take steps to ensure that such tragedies don’t happen again. For a while people pay attention. Investigative bodies like this one are formed and spend months sifting through evidence to attempt to pinpoint the causes of the disaster and offer recommendations aimed at preventing another one.
We have done so in this report, again with the genuine hope that reforms can be instituted and that the Upper Big Branch disaster is the last coal mining disaster ever in this country. However, we offer these recommendations with reservation. We have seen similar reports, written with the same good intent, gathering dust on the bookshelves of the national Mine Health and Safety Academy.
We also have witnessed times when this country rolled up its sleeves and went to work with a steely determination to improve workplace conditions. Some of the most dramatic improvements for miners’ health and safety in the United States came after some of the worst human tragedies – the disaster at Monongah in 1907 and the explosion at Farmington in 1968 – when big, bold reforms were put in place by courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level.
These reforms have given us, among other things, quarterly inspections of underground coal mines, imminent danger withdrawal orders, greatly expanded miners’ rights, respirable dust limits and mandatory minimum hours of safety training for miners. And they have saved miners’ lives. The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was the most comprehensive occupational safety and health law ever enacted in this nation and perhaps in the world. In the five years after its passage, the rate of coal mine fatalities declined 37 percent; the fatality rate again dropped 25 percent in the five years after passage of the Federal Mine and Health Act of 1977.4
This tells us we can mine coal safely in this country. Disasters are not an inevitable part of the mining cycle. There are not preordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation’s energy. While we are all in God’s hands, the safety and health of our miners is also in the hands of the mining community.
However, laws and regulations are effective only if they are respected by companies and enforced with diligence by regulators.
“The Upper Big Branch disaster laid bare the loopholes that riddle our mine safety laws. These loopholes allowed dubious mine operators like Massey Energy to violate mine safety rules repeatedly with impunity,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.5
Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.
The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.
1 “No survivors in New Zealand Pike River coal mine after second explosion,” Herald Sun (Australia), November 24, 2010
2 U.S. Department of Labor news release, January 4, 2006
3 Brown, K., WV Public Broadcasting, April 12, 2010
4 Comparing the five-year fatality rate for 1965-1969 to the five-year rate for 1969-1973
5 Ward, Ken, Jr., Coal Tattoo, April 15, 2011