Some mine company executives say the industry needs to focus on changing this, and working toward a goal of no deaths or injuries in the mines.
During an August 2007 speech to the Utah Mining Association, Consol Energy Inc. President J. Brett Harvey called for such a campaign.
"We need to change the paradigm, and we need to change it now," Harvey said during the speech in Park City, Utah. "What industry must change is our incremental approach to safety improvement because it creates an unintended tolerance to accidents. We need to get to zero."
Two weeks after Harvey's speech, 35-year-old miner Brent Reynolds was killed in a roof fall at Consol's Bronzite Mine in Mingo County. MSHA investigators blamed the accident on the company's failure to properly support the mine roof.
It turned out, though, that MSHA officials had missed three required quarterly inspections at the Bronzite Mine prior to Reynolds' death. Later in 2007, MSHA officials said that staffing and budget cuts had led them to fall far behind on legally required inspections at mines across the country and especially in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia.
Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler instituted what he called a "100 percent plan" for the agency for the first time in its history to comply with the mandate of Congress that all underground coal mines be inspected in their entirety four times a year. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was instrumental in getting MSHA more money to hire new inspectors and pay overtime to complete this goal.
On March 30, less than a week before the Upper Big Branch explosion, the Labor Department's inspector general issued a report that found MSHA had not made sure its inspectors were properly trained to do their jobs.
'A bunch of baloney'
After 12 miners died in a January 2006 explosion at International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Upshur County, the national media and political leaders were shocked to learn that MSHA had fined the company as little as $99 for violations agency inspectors deemed "significant and substantial."
Congress responded with language in the MINER Act to give MSHA authority to fine companies up to $220,000 each for violations of "a reckless or repeated nature."
In 2008 and 2009, as safety problems and violations were increasing at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, MSHA never used this ability to seek tougher penalties.
Also, while MSHA maintains it uses "all of the tools" available to it, the agency has never used a provision of mine safety law that allows it to go to court and ask a federal judge to shut down a mine that inspectors believe "constitutes a continuing hazard to the health and safety of miners."
"This whole thing about MSHA's hands being tied is a bunch of baloney," said Celeste Monforton, a former agency staffer who now teaches public health and workplace safety courses at George Washington University. "It will be an unfortunate missed opportunity if the administration and Congress make this out just as something about Massey Energy and suggesting that the agency's hands are tied."
'A refreshing change'
In late October, the U.S. Senate confirmed Obama's pick to run MSHA: Longtime United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main.
Safety advocates praised the move. The UMW said Main would "bring a refreshing change to an agency that for too long has favored production over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health in America's mines."
To date, Main's major initiative has been a new plan to "end black lung," a disease that has killed 10,000 coal miners across the country in the past decade alone. However, in his first rulemaking agenda, issued in December, Main reversed an initial Obama administration plan that promised to actually lower the legal limit for exposure to coal dust that causes the disease.
Main also announced an MSHA initiative called "Rules to Live By," in which inspectors would ensure that mine operators are complying with a dozen standards linked to a majority of mining deaths.
The program received a cool reception from mine safety advocates. Monforton noted that mine operators are "already legally bound" to follow those standards and that MSHA inspectors are already supposed to make sure that happens. Oppegard, an outspoken supporter of Main, said "Rules to Live By" was "really nothing different than anything we saw in the last 25 years."
Sunday afternoon, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are scheduled to attend a memorial service in Beckley. Obama will eulogize the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Obama has focused on Massey and the appeals backlog, but the president also said in his April 15 remarks that, "While there are many responsible companies, far too many mines aren't doing enough to protect workers' safety."
Obama touted his appointment of Main, contrasting it to the Bush administration, when MSHA was "stacked with former mine executives and industry players."
"Even so, we need to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures to ensure that we're pursuing mine safety as relentlessly as we responsibly can," the president said. "I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.