Monday, January 09, 2006

It is time now to start asking the hard questions.

Six of the coal miners were buried yesterday. The rest will be buried early this week.

I resisted the temptation to put up a post on this after that horrible night last week. It was appropriate to allow the families and small rural communities to bury their dead in peace. And I didn't want to get into, in the words of one blogger I sometimes read, 'Katrina-izing' the tragedy, and jumping to conclusions (we saw enough of where doing that can lead in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday.)

Now, however, as the dead are finally being buried, it is time to begin asking some questions. Questions that will be answered, hopefully by the probe. And no, what happened with the miscommunication isn't one of the questions-- in a day when everyone is wired and has a cell phone, and everyone was desperate for any hint of information, what happened was tragic, but almost predictable. And ultimately, the bizarre horror of that night killed no one.

What did kill twelve men was an explosion. The explosion itself appears to have killed only one of the men, but it trapped the rest deep under ground in a space with limited oxygen, while filling the air with lethal amounts of carbon monoxide. Initial reports say it was caused by lightning. I have to admit that I am a little skeptical about that, the more I think about it. I have only been across the West Virginia panhandle, and that was at night on a bus, so I don't know a great deal about the weather there. But the explosion happened at around six thirty in the morning as crews were re-entering the mine after the long holiday weekend. Now, I suppose that it is possible that there could be a lightning strike at six thirty in the morning, but I've never lived anywhere that happens very often, especially in the winter. And even if it did, the problem is that the gases and coal dust that ignited had been allowed to accumulate in the mine to the point where they could explode.

Now that raises the first question: In the year 2005, why isn't there a monitoring system in place that can alert people to potentially unsafe levels of gases or coal dust before anyone goes in? They were able to monitor the levels of these gases before sending in rescuers an agonizing 11 hours after the explosion (a time frame that is bitterly ironic now that we know that the rescuers were taking their first steps inside just about the same time that the last miners were losing consciousness). So why couldn't the same equipment be used before the explosion to determine technologically that an explosion was possible?

A bigger issue is this: The mine in question has been cited numerous times for safety violations. Although it changed hands in November, there is no indication that any action was taken to address this ongoing record of citations. This raises three questions:

1. Why was action not taken by the owners of the mine to bring it into compliance? We all heard the CEO of the mining company, Bennett Hatfield, give what was clearly a sincere statement of regret and sorrow over the loss of the employees. But he had a chance to possibly avoid it by fixing the safety violations, and he did not.

2. Why, after violation after violation after violation, did the government not take action to close down the mine? What good are citations if no one follows up on them, or action happens so rarely and after so long an interval, that no one fears the penalty? I've blogged recently about how the lack of accountability on the part of employers leads to more and more hiring of undocumented workers, and this situation is no different.

3. The mine was a non-union operation. Would a union have helped prevent this? You bet your sweet patootie they would have. Unions go to court and fight aggressively to have regulations enforced and safety improvements made, and the 'penalty' problem I mentioned in the second question doesn't exist, because employers fear legal action by the union and/or strikes much more than they fear the relative inaction by the government. Three years ago, the union in Pennsylvania (remember that?) pushed for everything from a speedy rescue operation to overtime pay for the trapped men.

As I said, there will be plenty of time to investigate this, but now that the men are being buried, the best service the rest of us can do (in addition to continuing to pray for the community, and for Randall McCloy) is to speak out as often as necessary to make sure that a full investigation is forthcoming and that nothing is swept under the rug.


Mr. Mack said...

One night, in the coalfields of Virginia, 3 yr old Jeremy Dawson was crushed to death by a 1000 pound boulder dislodged by a bulldozer high above his parent's home.

In tennessee, a piece of "flyrock" (debris cast out during a blast) shot out and killed 16 yr old Brian Agujar, a tourist from Louisiana.

In both instances, the mining operations were found responsible, and fined. Both went bankrupt, and resumed operation just days later. It's a shell game, Eli. The companies extract huge amounts of mountain-top, dump it into the valey below, choking off streams, destroying ecosystems, then scrape enough back on so the mountain looks the same as before. Then, they move on, bond out, and the citizens are left to pay when things go wrong, which they frequently do. Corporate America has gone mad.

Eli Blake said...


I hear you. I used to live in Montana. The big issue there was how the Anaconda company had made some promises to the city of Butte that they would (Butte was the site of the largest open pit copper mine for a long time), if they ever left, maintain the pumps to keep the pit from filling up with water that would eventually overflow and flood the city.

Well, one year they sold the mine to some no name operator, got the legislature to sign off on it, and then about a year later the company that bought the mine went belly up (and had practically no assets to pay to maintain the pumps.) It turned out (and I don't know what happened after that because I moved out of state, but Butte is still there) that the company that bought the mine had in fact been a front company set up by Anaconda pretty much for the express purpose of dumping the mine without fulfilling their obligations. When I left, there was a lawsuit starting on it.

EAPrez said...

Here's your answer. Its because the coal industry has friends in the White House.

by Christopher Drew and Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Claire Hoffman, The New York Times

In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.

Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official -- Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease.

The reintroduction of the coal dust measure came after the federal agency had abandoned a series of Clinton-era safety proposals favored by coal miners while embracing others favored by mine owners.

The agency's effort to rewrite coal regulations is part of a broader push by the Bush administration to help an industry that had been out of favor in Washington. As a candidate four years ago, Mr. Bush promised to expand energy supplies, in part by reviving coal's fortunes, particularly in Appalachia, where coal regions will also help decide how swing states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio vote this year.

The president has also made good on a 2000 campaign pledge to ease environmental restrictions that industry officials said were threatening jobs in coal country. That promise led many West Virginia miners, who traditionally voted Democratic, to join coal operators in supporting Mr. Bush. It helped him win the state's five electoral votes, ultimately the margin of victory.

Safety and environmental regulations often shift with control of the White House, but the Bush administration's approach to coal mining has been a particularly potent example of the blend of politics and policy.

In addition to Mr. Lauriski, who spent 30 years in the coal industry, Mr. Bush tapped a handful of other industry executives and lobbyists to help oversee safety and environmental regulations.

In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.


Anonymous said...


Wonderful post; great questions and most excellent points. ESPECIALLY point #3: "Would a union have helped prevent this?"

You bet your sweet patootie...

Good comment points and facts, too, {{all}}. Write on.