After Upper Big Branch Explosion: Don’t Our WV Coal Miners Deserve Better?


Today is Monday, April 5, 2010.  You’ve just finished Easter weekend with your family.  You’ve enjoyed spending time with children and grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.  Church has played a big part in your weekends.  Your time with family is a blessing.  This Easter weekend you have counted your blessings.   You have also prayed. . . because as a coal miner, you pray.

You leave home and drive toward Montcoal, W.V.  It’s the same drive you have done six days a week for the last several years – a difficult winding drive on two-lane mountain roads.  You have a lot of time to think during that long drive.

You think to yourself, “Mining coal is a good job, but it’s hard work.”  Working underground in the coal mine is always dark.  No matter how good the lighting is, it’s always dark.  It is also wet and muddy.  No matter what you do, when you finish the long day, you are filthy.

Life as a coal miner is tough and dangerous.  It’s hard on you.  It’s hard on your family.  Your family worries about you.  You worry, too, but you do it for your family.  You do it for your children.  You do it so your children will never have to do it.  At work, most of your friends feel the same.

Your drive ends at Montcoal.  It is a small community — about the only business located there is the Upper Big Branch mine.  The sights, sounds, and smells of the mine permeate all of Montcoal.  Massey Energy operates the mine.

You mine coal there at Upper Big Branch.  Before going to work for in the mines, you had other jobs — but, those jobs did not pay as well as going underground in the mines.  Your friends, from those other jobs, were never as good as the friends you make going underground.

You work the morning shift.  You descend miles underground on a man-trip to reach your worksite.  You work all morning and most of the afternoon.  Today has been uneventful.  Quitting time is 3:00 and you’re looking forward to quitting time.  Thank goodness for quitting time.  You want to get back home.

Suddenly, all power in the mine shuts off.  Everything is dark and the silence is unnatural.  You hear a roar.  You see a flash.  You know something is wrong.  You know that something bad has happened.

You are killed in an instant.  In the last second of your life, you hope that you will not have died in vain.  You hope that an explosion like this will never be allowed to happen again.

In the wake of that Upper Big Branch tragedy, the Mine Safety Health Administration was charged with making sure nothing like it ever happened again.  One of the ways it is to do that is by increasing its enforcement efforts, including reducing the backlog of fines frivolously appealed by coal companies.

Under the Mine Safety Health Act, stiffer penalties are to be levied against repeat offenders.  But a coal company can avoid the stiffer penalties by asserting frivolous defenses and requesting multiple delays.  MSHA watchdogs have long complained that allowing companies to avoid the more stringent penalties ultimately takes the teeth out of the law.  Many fines related to health and safety, simply go unpaid when mining companies declare bankruptcy or go out of business.  In fact, seventy million dollars is owed to the federal government for health and safety violations by coal companies.

Recently, strides had been made to clean up the backlog by bringing in more government lawyers to handle the cases.  However, that progress is about to be undone.  As the Huffington Post reported, “[F]aced with the same across-the-board cuts now hitting federal agencies, the Labor Department plans to shut down or downsize three offices devoted expressly to litigating some 10,700 mine safety cases involving fines that companies are contesting, according to a letter sent from concerned Democrats to Labor Department officials earlier this month.  Thirty out of 74 attorneys handling cases in those offices would be laid off, and others would be subject to furloughs, states the letter, signed by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Nick Rahall (W.Va.).”

The Huffington Post noted that the cuts to the backlog efforts are more severe than most other cuts under sequestration.

If we don’t learn from the past are we not doomed to repeat it?  After Upper Big Branch, don’t our WV coal miners deserve better?


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