What caused last week's Massey Energy coal tragedy, West Virginia's worst disaster since 1968? A possible explanation seems to be emerging:
Federal safety inspectors cited the Raleigh County operation thousands of times for dangerous law violations, including buildup of explosive methane and coal dust. But Massey avoided closure of the profitable mine by snarling the U.S. bureaucracy with endless legal appeals. Lifesaving enforcement apparently was obstructed.
As reporter Ken Ward Jr. outlined Monday, stiffer federal fines were mandated after West Virginia's Sago mine tragedy in 2006. But various coal firms used their high-priced corporate lawyers to dispute two-thirds of new fines. Massey exceeded the industry average by appealing three-fourths of them. Thus many safety actions were stalled.
In February 2008, former mine safety chief Richard Stickler complained that coal owners were clogging the appeals process. In June 2008, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., protested in a Senate hearing that energy firms had dramatically increased their appeal rate. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., provided more money "to help shorten the amount of time to litigate these fines."
In June 2009, David Akrush of Public Citizen warned the White House: "Every day that these safety violations go unresolved, the chance that this nation will see another tragic mining accident grows." It was a prediction worthy of Nostradamus.
In February of this year, new U.S. mine safety director Joe Main told a House Labor Committee hearing that skyrocketing company appeals still blocked federal safety efforts.
Tangled federal regulations added to the obstruction. As reporter Ward pointed out, a complex "screening criteria" -- not required by U.S. law -- says closure action can't begin unless a mine has a "withdrawal order" forcing miners to be removed from a danger zone. The Raleigh mine had 16 withdrawal orders, but Massey lawyers disputed all 16, blocking closure.
A wave of U.S. and state investigations has begun. Months of hearings lie ahead. In the end, we hope safety laws are changed so that dangerous mines may be shut down immediately, despite owner appeals. Such a reform would have saved 29 lives in Raleigh County. If coal corporations want to challenge the findings, they can do so while gassy, dusty pits are idled, not full of workers whose lives are at stake.
Of course, the industry and many Appalachian politicians would complain that such tough enforcement is an "attack on coal." If the Raleigh mine had been closed until it was made safe, the temporary loss of its 200 jobs would have caused an outcry. Yet it's now abundantly clear that closure should have occurred.