Four West Virginia miners were killed on the job within two weeks -- two of them at a Ukrainian-owned Raleigh County mine recently cited for 65 safety law violations, after being fined $125,000 last year.
Federal mine safety officials called the two-week toll "tragic and unacceptable." Gov. Tomblin ordered a one-hour "stand-down" at all West Virginia mines to review safety rules.
But will an hour of safety talks accomplish much -- especially at a mine where safety laws were broken 65 times? Mine safety lawyer Tony Oppegard called the stand-down "really just a publicity stunt."
State and federal inspectors work incessantly to make West Virginia mines safer, but deaths keep happening. What can be done to make enforcement more effective?
After a coal dust explosion killed 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, the state launched a massive crackdown on dangerous mine dust -- which then-Gov. Joe Manchin called "basically gunpowder." But reporter Ken Ward Jr. recently revealed that the Tomblin administration hasn't yet issued a single dust citation or fine, even though 1,125 mine samples flunked safety tests. Further, a state board hasn't yet written rules to be used as a basis for citations and fines.
Mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer called this outcome "a charade.... They are going through some motions, but nothing has happened."
House Speaker Rick Thompson expressed frustration: "When we pass a law, we expect it to be enforced." He added that he's also worried about inadequate methane monitoring in mines.
A century ago, West Virginia miners were killed by hundreds, year after sickening year. The Monongah tragedy officially killed 361; one at Eccles, Raleigh County, took 183 lives; another at Layland, Fayette County, killed 112, etc. Scores of other blasts, fires and roof falls killed dozens at a time. Single, individual deaths were almost too common to record.
After each major disaster, new safety laws were passed. The 1968 Consolidation Coal tragedy at Farmington claimed 78 miners, and Congress launched a huge crackdown. Gradually, death tolls shrank.
But in today's world, four deaths in two weeks is a jolt. Consol CEO Brett Harvey says "zero deaths" is the only acceptable level. The Legislature should seek further ways to upgrade mine safety. A good place to start might be to ask why no coal dust citations have been issued, three years after the Upper Big Branch tragedy.