Senate Panel Examines Mine Safety After Deadly W.Va. Explosion

BY khenry  April 27, 2010 at 3:37 PM EST

The country’s top mine safety expert was part of a panel that appeared Tuesday afternoon in a Senate hearing about the recent explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners in the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades.

Joe Main, the chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration who was appointed by President Obama, led the testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We realize the current ‘pattern of violations’ program is broken and must be fixed,” Main said. “It is too easy for mine operators to evade responsibility and too hard for the government to hold bad actors accountable.”

Among those also appearing: Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union and Jeff Harris, a mine worker from Farley, W.Va.

During his testimony, Harris said mine workers would take a number of gas monitors to check for gas levels, but only report the lowest reading. “They would take air readings until they got the right one,” he said.

Not at the hearing, but also in the spotlight is mine owner Massey Energy, which has faced scrutiny over safety violations.

In addition to the company’s safety record, questions have resurfaced recently over long-standing feuds over Massey Energy’s union and labor practices.

A spokeswoman for Senate HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Massey representatives were not invited to testify because the hearings will broadly address the state of mine safety, rather than the specific incident at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association is expected to testify on behalf of the mining industry.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship and several company board members responded to the public criticism in a Monday news conference, addressing both the mine safety violations in Upper Big Branch and the conditions preceding the explosion.

Board member and former mine engineer Stan Suboleski said:

“Shortly before the explosion, the three foremen on the working sections conducted and called out their pre-shift examinations, as required by law. No hazards were found and methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero. There was no indication of a dangerous condition, yet only a few tens of minutes later the explosion occurred.”

For more on how mine disaster investigations are conducted, we spoke with reporter Ken Ward Jr., who covers the mining industry for The Charleston Gazette* in West Virginia. Ward covers both the Upper Big Branch investigation and whether business and labor politics could interfere in meaningful safety upgrades for the mining industry.

How seriously do West Virginians and the mining industry take investigations like Tuesday’s Senate hearings?

Ken Ward: We had kind of the unprecedented scene of the sitting president and vice president of the United States coming here and eulogizing miners after a mine disaster, which I think gives a lot of people here hope that more might be done. But this is kind of the standard operating procedure after one of these disasters. Everybody gets together and pounds their fists on the table and wrings their hands and after all of that dies down, flags go back to the top of the flag pole and workers are still going back to work in coal mines and nothing really changes as far as the ultimate safety precautions that are being taken there.

How do industry politics and the regulatory environment shape the discussion of mining safety?

Ken Ward: You have an industry that likes to tout how much money it spends and how hard it works to make its workplaces safe … It’s kind of hard to make the argument that a company that just had 29 workers die is operating safely. On the other hand, it would be unfortunate if this opportunity to focus on mine safety was focused completely on the record of Massey Energy and it was to be used to re-fight a 20-year-old fight between the United Mine Workers of America and Massey Energy.

I think the administration, the White House, is walking a very fine line here when they have the former United Mine Workers Safety Director [[Joe Main](http://www.msha.gov/asinfo.htm)] as the head of MSHA and he’s running the investigation of this disaster. That’s not to say it’s not a positive and progressive thing to have a formal coal miner running an agency that’s supposed to regulate the coal industry. It’s certainly is, but the politics of it are a little more complex.

As the investigations continue, what lines of questioning should senators and other investigators pursue?

Ken Ward: It would be interesting to hear how Bruce Watzman of the National Mine Association responds if he were asked, “Why are any violations acceptable?” and “Why isn’t the industry making no violations at all the standard?” and do they believe a company like Massey, which just a couple years ago, pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations that resulted in the deaths of two workers at Aracoma, does the National Mining Association believe that that sort of behavior is acceptable from its industry? Because if it doesn’t, why isn’t the national mining industry speaking out against that sort of behavior by a member of its industry?

I think it would be interesting to ask regulators like Joe Main, “Why does your regulatory agenda that was issued [Monday] not include a proposal to update the rock-dusting standards, the standard that governs how much crushed limestone has to be used to inert the coal dust in a mine?”

MSHA is currently using a standard that was based on research done in the 1920s that does not account for the finer dust and the much greater dust that is produced in a longwall mine like Upper Big Branch, yet MSHA is indicating no movement in that particular issue. One has to wonder why.

*The author, Kellen Henry, a West Virginia native, is a former Charleston Gazette reporter.