CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators said Wednesday the nation's coal mines have made huge strides in safety, pointing to a dramatic reduction in the number of accidents and injuries in the nation's single largest district in southern West Virginia.
But Mine Safety and Health Administration coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said there's still a lot of work to be done, and said his agency will continue cracking down on operators with a history of safety violations.
"We're trying to pick on the bad guys," he said at the West Virginia Coal Association's annual mining symposium in Charleston.
Despite improvements, 60 percent to 70 percent of the anonymous tips that MSHA receives about safety hazards are found to be true, he said. And Stricklin said he remains concerned that his inspectors have returned five times to one problem mine and found the same half-dozen problems uncorrected. He didn't name the mine.
MSHA began its so-called impact inspections after 29 miners died in April 2010 at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. It was the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in 40 years, and the biggest since an overhaul of federal mine safety laws inspired by back-to-back tragedies in 2006.
Twelve men died after an explosion and prolonged entrapment at International Coal Group's Sago Mine near Buckhannon in January 2006, followed within weeks by two deaths in a fire at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine. Several months later, five miners died in an explosion at Kentucky's Darby No. 1 Mine.
Those disasters led to a new federal law, and the reforms it called for have now been fully implemented, Stricklin said.
They included developing and deploying underground tracking systems so miners can be located in a crisis, installing refuge chambers to shelter those who can't escape, expanding the number of mine rescue teams and providing better training.
The tracking systems were still being implemented on April 5, 2010, when Upper Big Branch exploded. Although most of the miners were located within hours, it took days to find the final four. A tracking system in that mine wasn't yet fully functional. A refuge chamber did function as intended, but the blast killed men instantly, leaving them no time to find it.
"UBB set everybody back. The whole industry. You, me, the miners," Stricklin said. "We're still trying to get out of that situation and move forward."
However, today "we're better prepared if there is an emergency."
"We're in a negative industry," one judged by fatalities, fines and violations, Stricklin said. "It's rare you hear anything good. Good is hard to measure."
But he said he's confident that the changes policy makers, mine operators, regulators and miners themselves have made have saved lives.
Last year, only 21 coal mining deaths were reported nationwide -- 12 at surface mines and nine underground.
Charlie Carpenter, manager of MSHA District 4, also cited improvements in his region since he started work last May.
District 4 has 66 surface mines and 89 underground mines, and they reported a combined 249 accidents in a single quarter last year, he said. All but 62 involved injuries.
"That's a staggering number of injuries. When you think about it, it's unacceptable," he said.
The next quarter, the numbers fell to 179 accidents, including 33 without injuries.
In January, only 14 accidents were reported, and half resulted in no injuries. If that rate continues, Carpenter said, "that's going to be a heck of a quarter. It is a dramatic improvement."
The number of citations in District 4 is also on the decline.
"That tells me somebody out there is taking care of business," he said. "They're going out there and making sure the mine is compliant, and they're taking care of their people."