New U.S. mine safety rules may bring light to a long, dark tunnel

Originally published February 2011.

For the 19 years ending in late 2001, there were no major coal mining disasters in the U.S., yet from late 2001 to 2010, 70 miners were killed in six separate disasters. Now, new U.S. mining rules may make mines safer. But what caused so many disasters?

In 2006, twelve miners perished at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five more perished at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Kentucky. The year 2007 saw nine miners perish at Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, and the decade closed out with the worst American mining disaster in years: 29 lives lost at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. These are a few of the worst. As reported by CBS News, 2010 saw 48 American coal miners killed in explosions and various accidents, making it the most deadly year in nearly two decades. Now, the U.S. government may finally begin regulating mine safety again. On January 31 the newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, Joseph Main, proposed several new safety rules. But what conditions brought such a lethal period to coal mining?

U.S. President George W. Bush took office in 2000 and worked obsessively to loosen federal mine safety regulations. Mine safety is regulated by MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2002, Bush named former Massey Energy official Stanley Suboleski to the MSHA review commission that decided all legal matters under the Federal Mine Act. (Massey Energy is a major coal mining company.) In 2001, Bush also appointed David Lauriski, a 30-year coal industry insider, to head MSHA. Lauriski loaded his staff with more insiders and worked to relax mine safety rules so that companies could avoid citations for rules violations and the resulting fines. As reported by the New York Times, Lauriski worked to rewrite federal rules on coal dust control to suit his former employer, Energy West Mining Co. of Utah. And as reported by CBS News, Lauriski was directly involved in a cover-up of MSHA failings that contributed to a 300-million gallon coal waste spill, a spill thick with mercury and arsenic, at a Massey Energy operation in eastern Kentucky. The spill was up to 25 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

When Lauriski finally resigned in disgrace from MSHA in 2004, Bush appointed yet another industry insider, Richard Stickler to head MSHA. Stickler was a former manager of mines for Beth Energy Mines. Following the disaster at the Sago Mine that killed 12 miners, both Republican and Democratic senators expressed concern that Stickler was not the right person for the job. Not to be impeded, Bush appointed Stickler while Congress was in recess, thus avoiding the congressional approval process normally required.

By 2008, Bush cut mine safety enforcement funding and eliminated nearly 200 coal mine inspector positions at MSHA (reported by Ken Ward in Washington Monthly). Predictably, the disasters grew in scope. Thirty-eight miners were killed in explosions and fires from 2007 to April of 2010 and the most deadly disaster occurred at Massey Energy’s now infamous Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in 2010. In the years leading up to this disaster, MSHA had cited Massey Energy for over 3000 safety violations and issued 61 closure orders against this mine alone (reported at ThinkProgress, West Virginia Gazette). According to experts, these numbers were astonishing and all but guaranteed a disaster at this mine, but MSHA never followed up with enforcement action. MSHA rules allowed Massey to appeal citations and to keep operating, even while the appeals were in process. With staffing shortages at MSHA, the appeals process moved at a snail’s pace. The result was that mine safety regulation in America was effectively shutdown, likely resulting in the 29 additional deaths at the Massey Energy mine in April of 2010.

In October 2009, six months before the Massey Energy disaster, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Joseph Main to head MSHA. Joseph Main is an internationally recognized expert with decades of experience in mine health and safety issues, and notably, not an industry insider. On January 31, 2011, MSHA proposed several new mine safety regulations that will hopefully end the string of disasters. The proposed rules will stop mining companies in the U.S. from using appeals of MSHA’s safety citations to avoid tougher sanctions, and eliminate the use of MSHA’s warning letters that only give mining companies more time to avoid sanctions, thereby postponing actions to improve safety. The actual implementation of these new rules and others is yet to be fully seen, but for the miners working in America’s coal mines, there may finally be a light at the end of this long and deadly tunnel.

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