CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Almost three years ago, the horrible coal dust explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County killed 29 miners and stunned West Virginia. Investigations concluded that the deadly blast occurred because Massey had failed to apply enough rock dust to cover tunnel floors -- thus a methane "pop" kicked a cloud of explosive coal dust into the air, triggering a much-bigger blast.
Enormous safety efforts followed. Then-Gov. Joe Manchin ordered state inspectors to begin collecting and analyzing floor samples from mines -- although the state had no laboratory for the task. The Legislature passed laws dictating the enforcement. About $850,000 taxpayer money was poured into creating a lab at the South Charleston Tech Center and testing for dangerous coal dust levels.
However, as reporter Ken Ward Jr. revealed, the Tomblin administration so far hasn't issued a single citation or fine, even though 1,125 test samples failed to meet safety requirements. Further, the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety hasn't yet issued written rules to be used as a basis for citations and fines. (It managed to issue a drug-testing rule with little difficulty.)
"It's a charade," mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer said. "They are going through some motions, but nothing has happened. This dust issue was absolutely the most critical failure at the Upper Big Branch mine, and three years later, there's still not a prevention measure in place to keep it from occurring again."
State officials and coal industry leaders insist that a crackdown has happened, voluntarily, outside of direct enforcement channels. Inspectors tell mine owners of test failures, and the owners increase rock-dusting, they say.
"In my opinion, the mines are white today," new state enforcement chief Eugene White said. State consultant Randy Harris added: "We've been harassing them to death." Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton declared: "There is more rock-dusting than ever before."
Well, then, why did 1,125 samples flunk the safety test?
We agree with House Speaker Rick Thompson, who demanded that the Tomblin administration impose tougher policing.
"When we pass a law, we expect it to be enforced," he declared. "We're going to stay on top of it and make sure they enforce the law." He added: "I'm particularly concerned about the rock-dusting requirements and the rules on methane monitors."
Bravo. We hope Thompson -- whose father died in a mine accident -- exerts pressure in the upcoming legislative session. Maybe he'll call a hearing on the policing lag. Did the power of coal industry politics interfere? It's inexcusable that three years after the worst mine tragedy in a generation, official safety enforcement still hasn't begun.