This new epidemic has occurred on MSHA's watch. Although the agency has received massive funding to keep miners safe and healthy, it hasn't been able to compete with the energy industry's powerful lobby in Congress and state legislatures and has been unable to bring meaningful regulatory changes to a broken system.
Another drawback to improved safety is that new technologies aren't finding their way into the mines. As we pointed out in our report, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for 20 years has tested a dust explosibility meter that provides real time information as to whether enough rock dust has been applied to prevent a dust explosion. Those meters still are not in common use.
Compounding the problem, NIOSH, the only federal agency charged with testing new safety and health equipment for the mining industry, lost its only testing facility when the experimental mine at Lake Lynn, Pa., closed. Lake Lynn served as the government mining research facility for 30 years. Its closure marks the first time the country has been without a testing facility since the Bureau of Mines was established in 1910.
As a result, promising technology developed by manufacturers and suppliers sits idle and unused. For example, MSHA ordered its districts to halt implementation of a promising spray-on rock dust because it cannot be tested, despite the fact that the U.S. attorney included this means of spraying rock dust as a requirement in its settlement agreement with Alpha.
In July 2012, politicians and the news media gathered with the families of the UBB miners to dedicate a memorial at Whitesville on the site where, in the days and weeks after the disaster, anguished West Virginians brought mementoes -- hard hats, miners' boots, music and hand-scrawled notes of remembrance and loss.
Once more, promises were made that such a tragedy would never happen again. A brother of one of the miners said, "Now they'll never forget."
He is only partially correct. Those who knew the UBB miners or know their families will never ever forget. But for the rest of the nation, those men, like hundreds of miners before them, will slip all too soon into the collective memory of heartbreak and loss that is part of the fabric of the Appalachian coalfields.
As we said in our report, there have been times when courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level responded to mining disasters with big, bold reforms, sending families the message that their loved ones had not died in vain. Sadly, in response to UBB, protections of miners have diminished, known safety remedies have been neglected and new technologies aren't being implemented.
We have to ask ourselves, as Sen. Byrd did, how serious we are about protecting those at risk. So far, the answer is we're not very serious at all.
McAteer, former assistant secretary for The U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration and vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University, practices law in Shepherdstown. Spence is the coalfield specialist for the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project.