Outside editorial: A mining tragedy

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mining accidents are as closely associated with West Virginia as Appalachian folk music. They're expected, but no one knows when the next tragedy will occur.

It was Monday. That's when an explosion occurred at the Upper Branch Mine near Montcoal, W.Va., killing at least 25 miners. Rescue efforts continue for four others believed to be trapped inside.

While mining accidents seem bound to happen, there are strong signs that this one might have been prevented. The canaries indicating potential danger were the hundreds of safety violations attributed to the coal mine's operator, Massey Energy.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had cited Massey for more than 1,300 violations at the Upper Big Branch mine since 2005, charges that could bring nearly $2 million in fines. Fifty citations in the last year involve issues like proper ventilation, handling combustible materials, and escape routes.

That Massey has been cited so many times should in one sense be comforting. It's an indication that safety inspections have improved since Congress passed the 2006 Miner Act, which was its response to another West Virginia tragedy, the Sago Mine explosion, which killed 12 miners that year.

But the fact that a mine could continue operating despite hundreds of safety violations is absolutely disheartening.

"Something went very wrong here," Kevin Stricklin, an MSHA administrator, said of Monday's explosion.

Yes, and the greatest wrong was Massey's ability to scoff at citations and keep its mine running.

The company's CEO is Don L. Blankenship, who seems to dismiss MSHA citations as if they were toilet paper.

"Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process," Blankenship said.

He is known for his anti-union antics, and for spending millions of his own money to influence a 2004 election for the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Coal miners need assurances that safety regulators are going to do more than issue citations to people like Blankenship, whose company doubled its profits to $104 million last year compared with 2008. Shutting down a mine will get his attention - and it just might save some lives.

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