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Mining for truth: Safety laws written in blood

On Nov. 20, 1968, an explosion ripped through the Consol No. 9 Mine near Farmington. The blast was so powerful that a hotel clerk 12 miles away in Fairmont felt his chair rock under him.

Seventy-eight coal miners died. Nineteen of their bodies were never recovered, entombed underground when the mine was sealed to starve raging fires of oxygen.

A little more than a year later, on Dec. 30, 1969, President Nixon signed into law the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.

For the first time, all coal mines nationwide would be inspected at least four times per year. Fines would be mandatory for violations.

“Dead miners have always been the most powerful influence in securing passage of mining legislation,” noted Sen. Jacob K. Javits, a New York Republican.

The 1969 law was not the first mine safety reform enacted only after a tragedy struck the nation’s coalfields.

In fact, Javits was quoting from a Russell Sage Foundation report from the 1940s, another era when a series of mine disasters prompted new safety laws.

For more than a century, the nation’s coal miners have had to die in large numbers before politicians and coal operators would agree to new ventilation rules, safety equipment and mine inspections.

“It’s unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books today is written with the blood of coal miners,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.

As early as 1865, a bill was introduced in Congress to create a Federal Mining Bureau. But it went nowhere until a series of disasters.

On Jan. 27, 1891, 109 miners died in an explosion at the Mammouth Mine in Mount Pleasant, Pa. A little more than a month later, on March 3, Congress passed “An Act for the protection of the lives of miners in the territories.”

Then, a series of two explosions and one fire — including the nation’s worst ever, the Monongah, W.Va., disaster — killed 860 miners in less than two years.

Lawmakers responded in 1910 by creating the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The agency was charged to research ways to reduce accidents, but was given no authority to inspect mines or enforce safety standards.

In fact, lawmakers did not require any nationwide set of safety standards for nearly another 40 years.

On March 25, 1947, 111 miners died in an explosion at the No. 5 Mine in Centralia, Ill.

John L. Lewis, the legendary United Mine Workers president, demanded improvements in federal safety laws.

“Coal is already saturated with the blood of too many men and drenched with the tears of too many surviving widows and orphans,” Lewis said.

Not all UMW leaders have responded as forcefully to mining disasters.

After Farmington, then-UMW President Tony Boyle declared to the world, “I share the grief. I’ve lost relatives in a mine explosion. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion.”

And if disasters have prompted safety reforms, a lack of them has drawn calls for lessening the protections for coal miners.

In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich and a herd of other Republicans took over Congress.

GOP leaders moved to eliminate the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency charged with enforcing mine safety laws. They wanted to eliminate separate safety rules for coal mines, and put the industry instead under the much weaker law that protects workers in other industries.

The move was defeated. Afterward, then-MSHA chief J. Davitt McAteer explained what had happened in an article in the West Virginia Law Review.

“What happens to mine safety laws when the terrible disasters that produced legislation are rare?” McAteer wrote in the 1996 article. “We should be grateful that the question is timely. It means that decades of progressively stronger laws have finally made a difference for miners, their families and their communities.

“But this hard-won success has had one ironic result: Some people are tempted to believe that a strong statute is no longer necessary.”

Some in the industry have continued that refrain.

During a September 2000 congressional hearing, coal company attorney L. Joseph Ferrara advocated elimination of required quarterly inspections and urged lawmakers to force MSHA to “meaningfully partner” with industry.

A year later, on Sept. 23, 2001, 13 miners died in a series of explosions at the Jim Walters No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. Two weeks before, terrorists had attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. Coming in the wake of 9/11, the Jim Walter disaster received little national media attention.

At a memorial service four days later in Brookwood, Ala., Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said she had seen another “Ground Zero” when she visited the No. 5 Mine.

“Whether it be the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, or the mine disaster that claimed 13 lives this last weekend, we are determined to do everything we possibly can do to keep it from ever happening again,” Chao said. “I have directed the Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct a full investigation immediately — to find out what went wrong and to identify what must be done to protect miners’ lives in the future.”

Two months later, in December, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski began the process of halting work on more than a dozen proposals to toughen mine safety regulations. Among them were efforts to improve mine rescue teams and provide miners with additional oxygen supplies underground.

Last week, two widows of Jim Walter miners told federal lawmakers that Chao broke the promise she made that day in Alabama. Wanda Blevins said her husband Jim’s body remained underwater for 43 days after the No. 5 Mine was flooded to extinguish fires.

“It’s kind of silly that we’re sitting here today asking for things that we know are needed to make the mining industry a safer place,” said Blevins, a McDowell County native like her late husband.

Freda Sorah, whose husband Joe died at the No. 5 Mine, said she could barely watch television coverage after the Sago disaster.

“I must admit that, the more I watched, the madder I got,” said Sorah, whose husband also was from West Virginia. “Rehearing the same promises I had heard four years earlier — broken promises from the Mine Safety and Health Administration and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.”

During the hearing, Sorah urged lawmakers on behalf of her late husband to, “Use my blood to create and enforce the new laws.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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