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Mining Safety Reexamined After Another Deadly Disaster in W.Va.

April 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Following the deadly mine explosion in southern West Virginia, Jim Lehrer talks to two reporters about the ongoing recovery efforts, the dangers of mining coal and the state of safety standards in the industry.
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JIM LEHRER: More now about the recent accident in West Virginia and the dangers of coal mining generally.

It comes from Frank Langfitt of National Public Radio. He’s been reporting for NPR from the scene in Montcoal. And Ellen Smith, she’s the owner, managing editor of “Mine Safety and Health News,” a trade publication. She’s won many awards for her reporting on mining issues.

Frank, where does it stand right now? What’s the situation?

FRANK LANGFITT, National Public Radio: Well, the scene right now, Jim, is they are trying to drill some bore holes deep into the mine to vent it. Right now, as you are hearing, it’s too perilous for rescuers to go in there. And, so, that’s really on hold.

You have many, many families here, of course, who are just stunned by this, 25 dead already. That’s a huge mining accident. Sago, as you mentioned earlier, was 12, and that was terrible, back in 2006. So, people are reeling. And I think you have the Mine Safety and Health Administration beginning to try to figure out what caused all this.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

The drilling of holes, how physically do they go about that? Is that done by heavy machinery? And how big are the holes?

FRANK LANGFITT: It is. They have to go in with bulldozers and clear away a lot of rock. And then they drill down. And they have to go down about 1,200 feet. And that’s through rock and earth. So, it takes a very long time.

And they have to measure very carefully, so they have to come within about 10 feet of where they want to go to vent. And then, later, they put sensors down to try to see if people are still alive.

JIM LEHRER: And to vent — they want to get that gas out of there, so it doesn’t explode again? Is that the whole point here?

FRANK LANGFITT: Exactly.

See, right now, the methane levels are so high that, if there’s a spark, that can actually create another explosion. And, in years past, rescuers have gone back into mines, and it’s been dangerous, and you have actually lost more people. So, I think, you know, the rescuers here want to be very, very careful. They don’t want to lose anybody else.

JIM LEHRER: Ellen Smith, explain what causes these explosions. What — what — why — when Frank says spark, where would that spark come from?

ELLEN SMITH, managing editor, Mine Safety And Health News: You can get a spark from the cutting equipment actually that is used to create the long wall panel. It cuts huge swathes of coal. There’s teeth. You can get sparks on the face.

You can get sparks from equipment. I mean you have got a lot of electricity down there. And, obviously, we have got the regulations in place so these things don’t happen. When methane levels get high, the equipment is supposed to automatically shut down, if everything works right.

Other things that can happen is, a roof fall can release a large amount of methane and also cause an explosion. So, there’s several areas of concern of how an explosion can start in a mine. But we also see that this mine had ventilation plan violations as recently as March 30. The government had cited them six times this year for ventilation violations. So, it’s a concern. And I’m sure — I’m sure we will look at this.

JIM LEHRER: What does that mean, ventilation problem?

ELLEN SMITH: They have to ventilate the mine and keep the methane out and keep the coal dust levels down. So, they actually have very, very large fans that air is brought in to the mine, and it goes through the tunnels, and it goes back out. And it carries away and it dilutes the methane, so it’s at safe levels.

And what the company was charged with — and, again, this is an alleged violation. We don’t know if this violation will be sustained. But the company had been charged with ventilation plan violations. So, they weren’t bringing in enough air to dilute and carry away that methane.

JIM LEHRER: Frank, what can you tell us? I mean, this must be hell for the families, as you mentioned. Specifically, what — what is being done with them and for them at this moment?

FRANK LANGFITT: I think that the Mine Safety Health Administration, Governor Manchin is trying to stay in very close touch with them.

As you would remember, four years ago, in Sago, there was misinformation, and many, many people thought that their loved ones had actually survived. And it was a terrible moment about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, when they realized that all hope was lost.

And, so, I think authorities here are being very careful about that. I think, also, for families members — you know, I talked to someone earlier today who lost her father, who was about to retire after five weeks. In five weeks, he was about to retire after 30 years. And I think they had a sense that he had done this very dangerous job, but he had made it out; he had beat the odds.

And, so, this was terribly painful for them right as he was getting ready to retire, go on a cruise, enjoy his grandchildren, that this — this happened.

JIM LEHRER: Ellen, it’s true, is it not, that misinformation is often a common malady in these kinds of accidents; is it not?

ELLEN SMITH: Well, you know, it is. And we have to be careful. We saw the same thing at Crandall Canyon.

The first information was that an earthquake caused the mine to fail and the roofs and walls to collapse. And that just wasn’t so. Then at Crandall Canyon…

JIM LEHRER: Where was that? I’m sorry. Tell us where that was.

ELLEN SMITH: Crandall Canyon was in Utah.

JIM LEHRER: In Utah.

ELLEN SMITH: And then at — and then at Crandall Canyon, there were hopes that the miners were still alive, when, in fact, this was a huge collapse, and it was highly unlikely that those miners survived the initial collapse.

So, that’s why we — we are very, very careful in what we say during these mine accidents. You don’t want to give false hope.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

ELLEN SMITH: And you don’t want to dash hopes either.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Ellen, put this accident in perspective in terms of the state of mine safety generally right now in this country.

ELLEN SMITH: Well, you know, Jim, two weeks ago, we were all down at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 40-year anniversary, enactment of the Coal Mine Safety Act. And we were also celebrating the fact that, last year, we saw the least amount of fatalities ever in the history of mining in the United States.

And the — the Department of Labor was filled with attorneys from the mining industry and mine operators, attorneys from the Labor Department, members from the United Mine Workers, and the press. And we all felt good. We felt like something had really been accomplished, that the mine regulations over the years had worked.

And I think we left there with a spirit of goodwill, and that things were coming around, that we were not going to see disasters like this. And this just comes as a shock to the entire community.

JIM LEHRER: Frank, is that true on the ground there, too, that people thought, hey, this doesn’t happen anymore; we have taken care of this problem?

FRANK LANGFITT: I think Ellen makes an excellent point here.

The thing that is, I think, so frustrating and, in a way, sort of shocking is that they made all these changes, as you mentioned earlier, with the safety chambers and more air packs underground. But the explosion was so tremendous that it didn’t matter, and people couldn’t get to those safety chambers.

And, so, that’s what’s so frustrating, is, even with all this legislation, you had a huge mine disaster that took many, many lives.

JIM LEHRER: Is the feeling, Frank, among the families and in that small community, like all communities where there are mining and miners, that this is — that risk — heavy risk like this, a risk of death, is just part of the job, and it goes with it?

Or has that pretty well been leveled out before now because of new safety regulations and just the history?

FRANK LANGFITT: I think Ellen makes a great point that these mines are much, much safer than they were generations ago. But they’re still among the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

And you do take a risk. And I think these people all take a risk whenever they go underground. They still are very well-paying in this area. And you will talk to miners who will say; Yes, I know it’s risky, but it’s the best opportunity I have. And I want to stay. I love West Virginia. I want to stay here.

And I think that’s one of the reasons that people continue to go underground.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ellen?

ELLEN SMITH: I don’t totally agree with that.

I think that the majority of the mines in this country work safe every single day. And the bottom line is, the majority of miners go home safe to their families everyday. And I just don’t buy the argument that — is it risky? Yes. There’s a lot of jobs that are risky. Farming, the agricultural industry, is risky.

But we see mines day in and day out. And these are safe operations. And the guys go home and the women go home to their families every day.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right.

Ellen, Frank, thank you both very much.

ELLEN SMITH: Thank you.