Fighting for Justice in the Coalfields

Press coverage of WV and Turkish mine deaths highlights mine safety enforcement issues

In the wake of the deaths of two West Virginia miners and the horrific loss of 301 miners in a Turkish mine disaster, media coverage has highlighted the deadly tensions between the existence of regulations designed to keep miners safe and the lack of enforcement of these regulations.

An NPR story addresses the fact that Patriot Coal’s Brody No. 1 mine, where Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed while retreat mining, had a history of significant safety violations.

“Federal data reviewed and analyzed by NPR show serious safety problems at the mine going back to 2007. The threat to miners was so serious and persistent that MSHA responded with one of its toughest enforcement actions. In October of last year, the Brody mine was designated a “pattern violator” and received extra regulatory scrutiny.

Patriot objected, blaming the troubled safety record and pattern of violations on a previous owner.

NPR’s review of data from MSHA reveals serious safety issues under Patriot management that put miners at risk of injury or death.”

Despite their designation as a “pattern violator” MSHA had not resorted to its strongest regulatory tool–seeking a federal injunction to cease production in the mine. MSHA has only used the injunction tool once to close a potentially disastrously dangerous mine.

On his Coal Tattoo blog, West Virginia journalist Ken Ward examines the history of industry resistance to safety regulations and MSHA’s decision-making around attempting to win injunctions against mines with major safety issues.

“Industry lobbyists and regulators say that they won’t settle for anything less than zero injuries and deaths – but then they want to play comparison games to avoid criticism when disaster strikes.”

Quoting from an earlier post about this issue, he turns to noted mine safety expert Celeste Monforton,

“We need a serious attitude adjustment,” said Celeste Monforton, a former federal mine regulator who now teaches and studies at George Washington University. “Violating safety and health standards – and that’s what citations are – is illegal.

“If an airplane had 50 safety violations, it sure wouldn’t be cleared for takeoff,” Monforton said. “Why is it OK for miners to be exposed to 50 or more hazards, and it’s considered ‘normal?’ That attitude must become a thing of the past.”

An article in U.S. News and World Report emphasizes how coal mines in particular have remained in a regulatory gap.

“The European Union, Australia, Canada and even other mining sectors in the U.S. – such as metals – have mitigated many of mining’s dangers. Yet those who earn their living in the depths of an American coal shaft engage in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. 

And ironically, it’s not because the job itself poses the most hazardous risks, but instead because of how the U.S. has sought – and for decades, failed – to make the profession safer.”


Read the full articles:

Regulators Couldn’t Close U.S. Mine Despite Poor Safety Record, National Public Radio

Why Is It Ok for Mine Operators to Break the Law?, Coal Tattoo

Experts: Coal Mining Deaths Preventable, U.S. News and World Report

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