CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This week marks the third anniversary of the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that left 29 miners dead and brought West Virginians together in shared pain and grief.
As we said in our independent report (wju/nttc.edu) released in May 2011, the explosion was no accident. Those 29 men were killed because officials of a rogue coal company disregarded worker safety in the drive to produce coal. But that's not the entire story. The UBB miners also died because regulators -- both from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training -- abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operator complied with minimum fundamental safety requirements.
The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd once said, "The test of a great country such as ours is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk ... Those men and women who bravely labor in such dangerous occupations as coal mining to provide our country with critical energy should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety."
Unfortunately, our country is failing Sen. Byrd's test. In the first quarter of 2013, eight miners were killed in the nation's mines, five in West Virginia. This compares with five during the same period of 2012, two in 2011 and two in 2010. Instead of trending downward, deaths are increasing.
Why are we failing our miners? Let's start with the state of West Virginia. In 2012, the Legislature passed mine safety legislation that many safety experts considered very weak. A year later, key features have yet to be implemented. As The Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. has so ably documented, state regulators have failed to enforce tougher rock dust standards or put into place the stricter methane standards contained in the law. The state's one accomplishment has been to implement a drug-testing program, which was promoted by the coal industry and which had absolutely nothing to do with the deaths of the UBB miners.
The U.S. Congress has done even less. Before his death, Sen. Byrd introduced legislation aimed at serial safety violators like Massey Energy, which operated UBB. The bill went nowhere, as has subsequent safety legislation. Bills recently re-introduced in both the House and Senate stand little chance of passage. Republicans and Democrats appear to be engaged in an endless debate as to whether to strengthen legislation or ensure that current laws are enforced.
The answer is both should be done. There is no excuse for MSHA's failure to act at UBB when inspectors walked past massive accumulations of coal dust, uncovered manipulations of the mine's ventilation system and were made aware of previous gas outbursts.
However, that doesn't mean there's no need for stronger legislation. One thing the Upper Big Branch disaster laid bare is the fact that high-ranking company officials who make decisions about safety in their mines are shielded from accountability when things go terribly wrong.
A federal investigation into the disaster has resulted in prison time for the head of security and a mine superintendent. The superintendent went to jail not for violation of federal mine safety laws, but because U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin charged him with conspiracy to violate safety laws. The president of another Massey subsidiary also has been charged with conspiracy, fueling hope that higher-ranking officials still may have to answer for their actions.
Upper Big Branch also offered compelling evidence that miners are not being adequately protected against black lung disease. Autopsies showed that, of the 24 victims who had sufficient lung tissue to examine, 71 percent had evidence of black lung, including men in their early 20s who had worked only at that mine.