Editorial: Stalling on mine safety kills workers

Out-of-state owners who control West Virginia coal mines often stall safety enforcement orders through a delaying tactic: When inspectors find dangerous violations and issue citations, owners file appeals that keep the charges in limbo.

This sort of delay may have occurred at Patriot Coal’s Brody No. 1 mine in Boone County, where two miners were killed Monday night.

Last fall, as environmental reporter Ken Ward Jr. outlined, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the Brody mine for a “pattern of violations” — an ominous finding that kicks a mine into a tougher enforcement bracket. MSHA said 253 “significant and substantial” safety offenses had been found at Brody during the past year, and some mine injuries hadn’t been reported.

But Patriot Coal, based in St. Louis, vowed to challenge the POV declaration, saying it had acquired the Brody mine only 10 months before and shouldn’t be blamed for violations that occurred under previous owners. A hearing on Patriot’s appeal is set for May 22.

Patriot said it filed a “compliance improvement plan” to end safety violations. But in the past year, 30 more injuries happened at the Boone mine under Patriot’s supervision, and four miners reported suffering from black lung.

Now, the loss of two miners’ lives again spotlights the peril of West Virginia mines that break safety and health laws. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said Tuesday:

“We know that mining deaths and injuries are preventable, and last night’s tragedy is particularly troubling, given the operator’s history of safety violations. Every step must be taken to make sure this operator — and all operators, for that matter — are held accountable for the safety and health of their miners.”

West Virginia has improved immensely since the horrible era when coal miners were killed by hundreds, year after year. Many tragedies spurred tougher policing of mines. But miners continue to die when they are expected to work sites with known, serious safety violations.

When will mine operators approach the job from the position that all mining deaths and injuries are preventable?

Five years ago, MSHA inspectors attempted to file a “pattern of violations” charge against Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine — but they were thwarted, as Ward reported, because Massey had appealed 16 past orders saying it must remove miners from dangerous sections. Until a “withdrawal order” was final, MSHA couldn’t issue a POV citation. After a 2010 explosion at the UBB mine killed 29 West Virginia miners, the federal agency strengthened POV rules to make them quicker.

Ever-stronger enforcement of safety rules is needed, and out-of-state companies should not stall with appeals. What is the use of identifying repeated and serious safety violations — no matter which company is in charge — if everyone just files through day after day, business as usual?

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