CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Many signs indicate that the 29 miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine did not have to die and that there was unwarranted neglect in Massey's operation.
After the Farmington-Mannington tragedy in 1968, which killed 78 miners including the current governor's uncle, Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. This tough act involved Sen. Jennings Randolph, Sen. Harrison Williams and Rep. Ken Hechler, who brought widows from Mannington to the halls of Congress.
The act stated in Section 75.32 that in coal mines opened after 1970 (such as the Upper Big Branch Mine), air intake and return entries must be separated from belt haulage entries. This is because coal releases methane, belt areas are fire-prone, and fire creates carbon monoxide. Clearly, this is a deadly and explosive combination that incoming air could push back onto miners working at the face. Thus, the combination of belt coal going out with fresh air coming in was outlawed.
Coal companies were not happy with this provision, since it required an expensive separate passageway for ventilation. Thus, companies began a campaign to change the law. Such a campaign is not a new technique. In fact there is a definite pattern with critical legislation in the aftermath of a crisis or tragedy. The basic strategy is: show compassion, act tough, placate people, pass legislation, and then, after time heals, modify impact. Whether it is voiding the Wagner Act with Taft-Hartley or gutting a key section of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 with federally blessed modifications, the outcome is the same. Ordinary working people are blindsided by a morass of bureaucratic policies, processes, compromises and false expectations.
The 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act was used to open the door for the belt-air modification. Under Section 101, it states that the Secretary of Labor "may allow the modification of the application of a mandatory safety standard to a mine if decided by the secretary of labor." This key section created opportunity for coal companies to avoid compliance with the 1969 law.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew the game plan well. Massey appealed most citations, thereby blocking corrections and showing a misleading good safety record. Blankenship was anti-union, as exhibited during earlier days at a Massey mine in Mingo County when he placed an armored personnel carrier at the mine's entrance to intimidate miners. He wanted no part of safer unionized operations, since they come with mine safety committees and an experienced miner who tours the mines with inspectors at all times. Blankenship was known to cut corners and one corner was eliminating an expensive neutral entry to separate ventilating the mine.
Using the 1977 Act, Massey was granted many "modifications" to the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in August, 2000. Two Massey operations were Performance Coal and Aracoma Coal. Both modifications were to use air coursed through the conveyor belt entry to ventilate active working places. Both modifications were approved by MSHA. Both operations were opposed by miners. Both operations killed coal miners.
Much is known about ventilation. Coal contains methane and mining causes coal dust. The two ingredients are potentially explosive. Venting fresh air over exiting coal on a belt contaminates the incoming air. When ignited, carbon monoxide is formed, which is also deadly when incoming air pushes that gas back to the working face.
Ignitions can be caused by many factors. When you have a gassy mine, however, extreme vigilance must always prevail. One might not want to grant a blasting permit for a massive surface operation directly overhead, thereby creating possible rock friction. One might not want to see spliced cables or electrical connections that are readily bridged when inspectors leave. One might want methane detectors to be in many locations. One might want mine inspectors to have similar authority as, for example, state conservation officers, who are fully certified police with the same authority as a state trooper, to take immediate actions including arresting personnel responsible for unwarranted and willful violations endangering the safety of coal miners.
While hearings and investigations about the disaster at Montcoal will now begin, there are some immediate actions that might be worthy of consideration: