CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a series of coal-mining disasters four years ago, lawmakers in Washington passed the first major changes in mine safety laws in 30 years.
They hoped the measure would stop the needless deaths of workers in the coalfields.
Mine operators were required to add emergency breathing devices and airtight rescue chambers to help miners escape explosions and fires. Companies were ordered to more quickly report serious accidents and create additional mine rescue teams.
But this week in Raleigh County, none of those reforms was enough. At least 25 miners died in a massive explosion at a Massey Energy mine. Officials fear the death toll will rise higher, with four more miners still missing inside the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal.
How could this happen?
"It tells me one of two things," said longtime mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton years. "One, the law isn't being enforced or, two, the law didn't go far enough."
By Tuesday, there was evidence that both could be true.
Take the 2006 MINER Act's requirement that operators add new communications and tracking gear to help miners talk to the surface and rescuers locate missing workers.
It's not clear that such equipment would have helped any of the Upper Big Branch miners, because the initial force of the explosion may have killed them. But if they survived, rescuers would have been unable to using tracking devices to pinpoint the miners' exact location.
That's because the Massey mine had only "partially installed" communications and tracking to comply with the new federal law. In fact, only one in 10 underground mines nationwide have met the law's requirements, according to MSHA data.
In West Virginia, most underground mines have met requirements of the state's new communications and tracking gear law. But the state doesn't require that equipment to pinpoint locations of workers in the active mining section of underground operations, something that MSHA does require.
During a media briefing early Tuesday, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin and West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten made clear the difference between their agencies' requirements -- and what they could have meant at Upper Big Branch.
"We know how many people are in that area, but we don't know their exact location," Stricklin told reporters.