Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Food Fight, Mark Two?

Of course the big news is that new federal mine safety legislation unanimously passed the Senate last week. More on that later, I hope.

But this one just can't go un-noted: As state investigators move ahead with the underground investigation at the Kentucky Darby mine where an explosion killed five, MSHA has declined to join them, AP reports.

The feds reportedly say it isn't safe; the state says it is. Never in the history of mine safety and health that I am aware has there been a rift like this one. Adding to the confusion: MSHA is the the Department of Labor. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao is married to Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Here's what Al Cross of the Courier-journal had to say last fall about McConnell/(Republican Ky. governor Ernie) Fletcher relations:

"Fletcher's base wasn't very deep anyway, and it was largely fostered by McConnell's quiet support for him in the 2003 primary. After the primary, when I was still this newspaper's political reporter, McConnell went out of his way to show me the little hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol where he pushed Fletcher to run.

At Fletcher's inauguration, McConnell beamed like a proud papa, but for the last several weeks, he has acted like the defendant in a political paternity suit."

When MSHA had an internal dispute that got aired in the press early in Chao's tenure about the conduct of an accident investigation, Chao called it a "food fight." Is it too much of a reach to wonder what they're calling this?

Meanwhile, Senator Byrd reportedly is keeping his "hold" on the nomination of Richard Stickler to head MSHA, the Courier-Journal reports. And the Bush adinistration isn't budging.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I Guess Somebody Reads..

..MineSafetyWatch over at MSHA, though some have told me they seem to be blocked from it.

MSHA has removed the prayer reference from its news release announcing the investigation. (See yeterday's post.)

Don't just take my word for it, though, the original release is still here. (At least for now.)

* * *

Meanwhile, Kentucky investigators at Darby are saying it looks like methane leaked through a seal, the Courier-Journal reports.

Clarification: virtually all coal mine explosions start with methane. Then typically, coal dust fills the air and joins in the explosion, magnifying it. It's not either/or. In theory, enough fine coal dust in the air can explode without any methane at all, but that rarely happens, because the coal dust needs something to disperse it before it's an explosion hazard.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Investigators Underground, Feds Praying

MSHA has announced that Tom Light, assistant district manager from District 2 in Pennsylvania, will lead the agency's investigation into the Kentucky Darby mine explosion. Reportedly, investigators already are underground.

Light is a long time MSHA vet (31 years) and can be expected to do a professional job in the investigation.

* * *


“We continue to pray for the family and friends of the five miners who lost their lives this past weekend," said acting assistant secretary of MSHA David Dye in making the announcement.

Not "our hearts go out to," the families, not "our sympathies," not "we are profoundly sorry for their loss."

I'm going to step way out of line here, recognizing that the separation-of-church-and-state thing is a silly outworn notion that no public official takes seriously any more. But in my opinion, such a quote in this situation amounts to a tasteless advertisement for the piety of the speaker and -- amazingly -- a whole federal agency.

The place to tell someone you are praying for him or her is in a personal communication, not a press release.

"When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men... But you, when you pray, enter into your inner chamber, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:5-6)

I don't blame Mr. Dye for having that quote in there, however; no doubt it was dictated from Higher Up.

Monday, May 22, 2006

No Stopping It

Again. Five this time.

The coal mines have not seen a worse sequence of three like Sago (12 dead) -- Alma (2 dead) -- and now Darby (5) since the winter of 1981-2 when three explosions killed 28 in 2 months.

This one happened in the wee hours and was over by morning, and "a horse's broken leg gets more media attention" comments "Angry Kentuckian."

Deja vu in another way too:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "[Former MSHA and Kentucky state official] Tony] Oppegard said a MSHA official told him the blast may have occurred behind a sealed-off portion of the mine, as happened at Sago....

"Also as with Sago, the explosion apparently obliterated a seal inside the mine constructed with Omega blocks, a concrete and fiber composite material that is lighter than the traditional concrete blocks, Mr. Oppegard said."

At the Sago public hearings earlier this month, a lot of questions focused on the "Omega block" stopping that was supposed to keep methane out of active workings but was just about vaporized by the explosion. MSHA said that simulation tests would go on all summer to figure out what happened. Federal officials were waiting for that analysis before making at any policy changes.

Today, they have changed their tune.

Mine Safety and Health News notified subscribers by e-mail: "MSHA announced today that the agency will begin a reassessment of the structural integrity of existing alternative seals and will require testing of the atmosphere behind the seals. For those alternative seals with structural issues in which the atmosphere behind them is potentially explosive, MSHA officials will require additional precautions to protect miners. MSHA also announced a moratorium on new construction of alternative seals under the 1992 MSHA standard, and district managers have been ordered not to approve requests to construct alternative seals in underground coal mines."

Sadly, "Kentucky legislators, responding to the deadly accidents at mines across the country, including January’s disaster that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, passed a measure requiring mines to store breathing devices underground, and to set up lifelines to help miners find their way out. But the law doesn’t take effect until July." (Charleston Gazette)

Especially wrenching was read a comment in the Herald-Leader by a former miner and local minister: "...I guess we have to learn to live with it. There ain't nothing we can do about it, but it's so sad when it happens."

About what already happened, that's true. But something can be done to make a different future.