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One Year After Upper Big Branch Explosion, Little Has Changed

April 5, 2011

One Year After Upper Big Branch Explosion, Little Has Changed

Statement of Alex Chasick, Policy Counsel, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The explosion killed 29 workers, the deadliest mine disaster in 40 years. As we found last month when we looked back on the century since the Triangle Factory fire and saw that not much has changed, there has been too little progress toward making mines safer.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, bears much of the guilt for allowing the safety conditions of the mine to deteriorate so badly and for lobbying against safety reforms in the wake of the disaster, but it is not the only mine operator that disregards the safety of its workers. According to a 2010 study of the safety of mining companies, four companies that operate coal mines in the Appalachian area – Massey, Patriot Coal Corporation, Peabody Energy and CONSOL Energy – all received the lowest possible grade for employee safety.

And although the disaster showed the limitations that agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) face when they try to cite companies for safety violations – Massey contested 75 percent of its violations in 2009 – the response from industry and its allies in Congress is that less regulation of mine safety is the answer. Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey at the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster, told an interviewer that “The feeling of the industry is that we’re regulated too much and not too little. Tragedies lead to more regulation.”

Indeed, in an effort to protect workers from future tragedies, Congress usually does pass new worker protections after mine disasters. The Washington Post in January published a graphic showing 100 years of mine safety reforms that Congress enacted after mine tragedies. From the establishment of the Bureau of Mining in response to the 1909 fire in Cherry Mine to the enactment of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act after the Sago and Darby Mine explosions in 2005 and 2006, Congress has strived to improve the safety of mines. Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t appear to have learned any lessons from the Upper Big Branch disaster. Mine and workplace safety bills went nowhere last Congress, which left workers in danger. These bills would have addressed shortcomings in MSHA’s enforcement authority and allowed it to respond more quickly to accidents, withdraw miners from unsafe mines, and prosecute and collect fines from mine operators with bad safety records.

This Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has reintroduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act. We urge Congress to act on this critical legislation and protect miners and other workers, who shouldn’t have to risk their lives to earn a living.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.