The scenario is sadly predictable: After a horrific tragedy at a coal mine, a lengthy record of safety problems is revealed; the public is outraged. This week’s explosion that killed 25 miners with four still missing should be the one that breaks this pattern by turning outrage into action.
On Monday, a huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 25 miners. Another four are trapped and rescuers continue to try to reach them, although it is unclear whether they are still alive. It was the worst mining accident in a quarter-century.
By Wednesday, a long list of safety problems at the mine, and others owned by Massey Energy Co., was becoming clear.
Three times in the past two months miners had been evacuated from the Upper Big Branch, two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs told The New York Times. In March, the mine was fined three times for ventilation problems, federal records show. That month, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine for 53 safety violations.
Last year, the mine was issued more than 500 citations — more than double the number in 2008 — and penalties tripled to nearly $900,000, according to the Times.
Clearly, the citation and penalty system is not working. Lawmakers should look at stiffer fines to ensure that problems are corrected — before people are killed.
“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, told a West Virginia radio network. “There are violations at every coal mine in America.”
Such complacency, which is sometimes shared by miners and their families in desperately poor areas where mining jobs are prized despite the danger, must end.
Safety rules are in place to protect miners — and to a lesser degree companies’ financial investments in mining infrastructure. If the rules are violated, there may be short-term financial gains, but tragedies such as that at Upper Big Branch show that such gains are not worth the human price.
If rules are routinely violated, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and Congress must find out why. If stiffer monetary penalties are needed, they should be adopted. If a mine must be closed until violations are corrected so that the owner gets the message that safety is a priority, rules allowing such action should be written.
In the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, as it has after other mine explosions, collapses and fires, Congress will hold hearings and lawmakers will talk of holding mine owners accountable. It all will be for show — and a sad display of disrespect for the miners killed — if they don’t take action to prevent future tragedies.