CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When federal lawmakers passed a major new mine safety law following a series of disasters in 2006, they left out some of the toughest reforms originally proposed by West Virginia's congressional delegation and advocated by two independent reports commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin.
Congress dropped proposals for tougher mandatory penalties for the violations linked to reckless disregard for safety rules, tighter coal dust limits and more concrete details for adding new emergency response equipment, such as breathing devices and miner tracking gear.
And after passage of the MINER Act in 2006, the Senate declined to take up a House-passed follow-up bill that would have tightened limits on coal dust that causes black lung disease and can help fuel powerful explosions.
The follow-up bill also would have mandated a detailed study of whether more comprehensive "rock-dusting" was needed to prevent fires and explosions in longwall mines like Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died last week in the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.
There's no way to know yet if any of these reforms would have prevented last week's disaster in Raleigh County. But mine safety experts say regulators and political leaders should re-examine every possible avenue for putting a stop to such disasters.
"This ought to be the end," said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. "We shouldn't have another disaster."
McAteer led independent investigations for Manchin of the Sago and Aracoma accidents, and issued sweeping reports that called for reforms that aimed to "put safety on par with production."
"Safety and health protection must be systematically engineered into all mining activities," McAteer wrote in his report on the Sago disaster.
In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Southern West Virginia's elected officials have promised a state investigation, congressional reviews, and possibly a public hearing that would examine the incident and try to come up with more reforms. So far, though, most leaders are declining to embrace any of the specific measures that were considered four years ago, but then dropped to win passage of the MINER Act and avoid a veto by President Bush.
"It is premature to say what changes in laws or regulations may be needed until the investigation is underway," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. "But I have called for a re-examination of the health and safety laws that have been put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life."