What’s next for mine safety standards? – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The sad aftermath of the tragic and terrible explosion that killed 29 miners in April 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine (UBB) in West Virginia came down recently in the form of a  $209 million fine. Federal prosecutors settled with Alpha Natural Resources – the company that bought Massey Energy, the owner of the mine at the time of the explosion.  UBB was the worst mine disaster in 40 years and the fine is 40 times the size of any previous one. But, of course, nothing can bring back the 29 miners–they had families, were part of their community, they worked grueling jobs each and every day, and they were fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles and sons.

Dean Jones, one of the miners who died, had warned the company of the dangerous conditions before the disaster and was told to get back to work or he and the other miners would be fired. The owners refused to allow the United Mine Workers to organize UBB, thus removing any leverage the workers had to negotiate for safer conditions.

Under the settlement, Alpha will pay $1.5 million each to of the 29 families; the company has also agreed to spend at least $80 million on prevention reforms that will help to avert another disaster, including better air monitors in their mines and new devices to prevent suffocation.

The same week federal prosecutors announced the fine, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released a 1,000+ page report that described UBB as lacking the basic modern safety measures: coal dust and poor ventilation is what caused this explosion, the same conditions that killed coal miners 100 years ago. The UBB mine’s ventilation system wasn’t working properly, causing a build up of flammable coal dust and the hazardous conditions that lead to the explosion. $34 million of the fine is for Massey’s violations of safety requirements.

Don Blankenship, the arrogant former Massey Energy owner who was sent packing after the disaster, was notorious for flouting safety requirements. Massey kept two sets of books – one for regulators, and one for internal purposes. Blankenship was preoccupied with how much money the mines were making, sometimes checking production every few hours, and always at the expense of safety.

This historic $290 million fine and report certainly brings some closure to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. The question is – will safety in the mines finally become a true priority, will mine owners finally see the value in having their workforce represented by the United Mine Workers which puts safety and health at the top of its demands, and will the lives of coal miners begin to be truly valued after this sad chapter in coal mining and labor history? We certainly hope so, but only time will tell.