Monday, November 06, 2006

A "Broader Look" At Death In the Coal Mines

The Charleston Gazettte-Mail Sunday published the first in what it says will be a series of pieces taking "a broader look" at coal mine safety.

The Sunday Gazette-Mail wanted to take a broader look, to examine the daily dangers faced by the 79,000 coal miners who help provide more than half of the nation’s electricity.

Reporter Ken Ward Jr. had been covering mine safety on and off for much of his 15 years at the newspaper. And he had recently been awarded a six-month fellowship by the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study the coal industry.

Under the direction of City Editor Robert J. Byers, Ward narrowed the focus of his fellowship to a project on coal mine safety. This story, the first in a series of special reports, is the result of that work.

Comment: there are various valid ways to define the number of coal miners. I am not sure of the definition the Gazette has used. Under MSHA's law, generally, the simple fact of working at a mine site is what makes someone a miner. According to MSHA's website, the industry reported 116,436 coal mine site employees in 2005. MSHA's database includes independent contractor employees, who in some mines work right alongside regular employees, and in others provide specialized services.

MSHA's breakdown by work location is: underground mines, 49,495; surface mines, 45,270; coal preparation plants, 15,397; mine-site offices, 5,516; independent equipment shops and yards (typically serving several mines), 858.

MSHA's database also documents the increase in coal mine employment, which apparently hit bottom in 2003 and has risen since.

At about 6:30 a.m. Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine, a small underground operation in Upshur County, W.Va. One miner was killed by the blast, and 11 others suffocated before rescuers could reach them 40 hours later.

Two weeks later, two miners died in a fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

On May 20, five miners died in an explosion at the Darby Mine in Eastern Kentucky, making 2006 the first time in two decades that there have been two mine disasters in the same year.

Outraged lawmakers gave fiery speeches. They demanded tougher enforcement and regulatory reforms. Reporters from New York and television crews from Washington poured into coal country to interview grieving widows and write exposés on mine disasters.

No one seemed to notice a larger pattern was continuing.

The paper rightly points out that the coal mine deaths occurring in ones and twos continue -- and are on the increase. Coal fatalities this year are up, even if for some reason a statistician were to discount completely the 19 deaths in the three high-profile disasters -- Sago, Aracoma and Kentucky Darby.

This weekend, two more coal miners were killed, bringing the national total to 45. As a result coal mine deaths this year are more than double last year's full-year total of 22, with almost 2 months of 2006 still to go.

The Gazette-Mail analysis found:

Mine operators were faulted for not performing — or incorrectly performing — required safety checks in nearly one-fourth of the mining deaths between 1996 and 2005. More than one-quarter of the fatal accidents involved mining equipment that operators had not maintained in safe working condition. Mine operators violated roof control, mine ventilation or other required safety plans in 21 percent of the coal-mining deaths examined. Mine managers did not train or provided inadequate training to miners in more than 20 percent of those accidents....

Agreement is just about universal that rule-breaking is a significant problem.

...“I believe most of the accidents that have occurred in my memory happened because the law and regulations were not followed,” [newly appointed MSHA director Richard Stickler said earlier this year.

The Gazette's aggregated findings about penalties also are interesting:

In the last 10 years, MSHA has fined coal operators more than $14 million for violations that contributed to miners’ deaths, according to a first-of-its-kind computer analysis by the Gazette-Mail.

Per violation, MSHA officials fined companies a median of $22,000, about one-third of the maximum allowed by law. For each miner killed, agency officials assessed a median fine of $4,250.

The maximum legal MSHA civil penalty for any single violation has been $60,000. Some fatalities involve multiple MSHA violations.

But fines are lowered or thrown out by judges. MSHA settles for less to avoid legal fights. Companies go belly up and don’t pay, or MSHA does not aggressively pursue payments. In some cases, appeals are still pending for deaths that occurred years ago.

Overall, companies have paid $3.4 million, about one-fourth of what MSHA has sought, according to the Gazette-Mail analysis.

In cases where fines were issued and are not under appeal, coal operators have paid a median fine per miner death of $6,200.

The Gazette piece also points at slowed action on promises at the state level:

...lawmakers unanimously approved [Governor] Manchin’s landmark plan to require rapid rescue response to mine emergencies, mandate electronic tracking of miner locations underground, and force coal companies to provide additional emergency oxygen underground. Other states and the federal government have followed with similar mine rescue initiatives.

But in the 10 months since Sago and Aracoma, Manchin has not acted on other promises or proposals to prevent mine accidents.

The governor has never introduced his promised legislation to ban the use of conveyor belt tunnels to bring fresh air into underground mines. Critics say the practice, legalized nationwide in 2004 by the Bush administration, helps spread fires, smoke and deadly gases....

In late July, the [state] mine safety office finalized a rule that reduces the amount of training miners must receive to be certified to perform electrical work in underground mines.

More to come, evidently. This doesn't fully reflect the piece, which includes a lot of detail about specific accidents and their impact on people's lives, for which you should really read the whole piece.

Meanwhile, I wish someone, someday would give this kind of intensive scrutiny to accidents in metal and nonmetal mines as well -- "metal and nonmetal" being mine-speak for gold mines, underground and surface stone quarries, gravel dredges, salt mines, sand pits, copper mines, gem mines, and dozens of other types, everything but coal. Every state in the union has some of these mines and - until the events of this year made the coal industry record much worse -- these miners were suffering virtually as many deaths as coal miners in recent years.

Metal and nonmetal miners remain invisible to most, in that there is no geographical concentration, no single labor organization or other advocate, to unify and highlight their story.


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