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How Can We Make Coal Mines Safer?

PHOTO: The Upper Big Branch mine disaster has resulted in criminal charges against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, which is causing people to again ask how we can make our mines safer. Photo of a UBB memorial service courtesy of the West Virginia Governor's office.
PHOTO: The Upper Big Branch mine disaster has resulted in criminal charges against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, which is causing people to again ask how we can make our mines safer. Photo of a UBB memorial service courtesy of the West Virginia Governor's office.
November 17, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Criminal charges against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship have returned attention to a basic question: How can America's coal mines be made safer?

Blankenship stands accused in connection to the 2010 tragedy at Upper Big Branch where 29 miners died.

Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, is one of the nation's experts on the issue.

She says a problem at Upper Big Branch was that it's almost impossible for Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors to keep a mine shut until a bad operator changes its way of doing business.

"MSHA can only shut down a section of a mine or a piece of mining equipment,” Smith points out. “They just don't have the capability to say, "Shut down this mine and clean everything up."

Blankenship has said he is innocent and that he's been indicted because of his criticism of federal mine safety officials. The industry argues that Upper Big Branch was the exception.

Smith says it's true that most mines are well run, and a few operators cause most of the problems.

Smith worked on an investigation with National Public Radio that found a few especially dangerous mine operators essentially ignore millions of dollars of mine-safety fines.

Smith says they routinely put their miners at risk.

But a bill sponsored by the Democratic Party to give mine safety officials more power to target operators died in gridlock.

"Legislation that is now dead in Congress would have allowed MSHA to shut a mine down like UBB if it has delinquent penalties and it's not paying attention to safety," she points out.

Blankenship is accused of heading a conspiracy to make Massey's mines look safer than they were.

Smith says a key part of this was the practice of having supervisors calling into the mines and ordering the miners to repair violations before the inspectors arrived.

"Mr. Blankenship allegedly ordered people to tell the miners when mine inspectors were coming so they could fix problems and violations underground," she maintains.

Smith adds another specific charge against Blankenship is that he cheated investors by claiming in financial documents that Massey's mines were safer than he knew them to be.

"They're saying that he filed false information when he said that Massey obeyed the law, that they were not in violation of the mine act, that he ran a very safe operation, which clearly wasn't true," she says.


Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV