On this day, just a year ago, 31 workers descended into the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Only two of these workers would live to tell of the explosion that rocked the mine later that afternoon.
As we found last month when we looked back on the century since the Triangle Factory fire and saw that not much has changed, there has been too little progress towards making mines safer.
Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, bears much of the guilt for allowing the safety conditions of the mine to deteriorate so badly and for lobbying against safety reforms in the wake of the disaster, but it is not the only mine operator that disregards the safety of its workers. According to a 2010 study of the safety of mining companies, four companies that operate coal mines in the Appalachian area—Massey, Patrior, Peabody and CONSOL — all received the lowest possible grade for employee safety.
And although the disaster showed the limitations that agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) face when they try to cite companies for safety violations — Massey contested 75 percent of its violations in 2009 — the response from industry and its allies in Congress is that less regulation of mine safety is the answer. Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey at the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster, told an interviewer that “The feeling of the industry is that we’re regulated too much and not too little. Tragedies lead to more regulation.”
Indeed, in an effort to protect workers from future tragedies, Congress usually does pass new worker protections after mine disasters. The Washington Post published a graphic showing 100 years of mine safety reforms that Congress enacted after mine tragedies. From the establishment of the Bureau of Mining in response to the 1909 fire in Cherry Mine to the enactment of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act after the Sago and Darby Mine explosions in 2005 and 2006, Congress has striven to improve the safety of mines. Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t appear to have learned any lessons from the Upper Big Branch disaster. Mine and workplace safety bills went nowhere last Congress, which left workers in danger. These bills would have addressed shortcomings in MSHA’s enforcement authority and allowed it to respond more quickly to accidents, withdraw miners from unsafe mines, and prosecute and collect fines from mine operators with bad safety records.
In fact, many in Congress are trying to curb sensible safeguards. Sen. Mitch McConnell & Rand Paul (R., Ky.) just introduced legislation last month that would make it easier to obtain safety permits on new mines and according to Kentucky.com,
Sen. Rand Paul is voicing concerns about the cost of proposed regulations aimed at reducing the disease of black lung which has been on the rise among coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Public Citizen demands Congress to dismiss these efforts and, instead, focus on passing the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act, which Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has reintroduced. This legislation would protect miners and other workers, who shouldn’t have to risk their lives to earn a living.