CHARLESTON, W.Va. – As West Virginians marked the third anniversary of an explosion that killed 29 coal miners Friday, congressional Democrats called the lack of action on tougher mine safety legislation “shameful.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin placed a large black ribbon and framed photo of 29 white hardhats on white crosses at the West Virginia Coal Miner Statue in Charleston and asked people across the state to observe a moment of silence at 3:01 p.m. That’s the time the massive explosion tore through miles of underground corridors at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, killing most of the victims instantly.
It was the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades, and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said “all of West Virginia still aches with the memory.”
Four investigations found the blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by accumulations of methane gas and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers.
Federal investigators discovered that Massey – later sold to Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources – had made “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to hide problems and throw off inspectors, even falsifying safety records. Managers also alerted miners when inspectors arrived, allowing time to disguise or temporarily fix dangerous conditions.
Former superintendent Gary May and security chief Hughie Elbert Stover are behind bars for their actions at the mine.
A former president of another Massey subsidiary, meanwhile, is awaiting sentencing for conspiracy. David Craig Hughart, who is cooperating with federal prosecutors in the continuing criminal probe, has testified that advance warnings were a widespread company practice.
But victims’ families and the United Mine Workers of America have repeatedly called for prosecution of the man Hughart says set that policy, former Massey chief executive Don Blankenship. His attorneys deny he did anything wrong.
Miners everywhere want justice, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said – not only for those who created the dangerous conditions, but also those “who created and condoned the corporate culture of putting production first and safety last.”
“They bear the ultimate responsibility for this tragedy,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he remains “absolutely and totally committed” to improving mine safety.
“By bringing the responsible parties to justice, we can’t bring our loved ones back,” he said, “but hopefully we will prevent another tragedy from robbing us of our beloved miners.”
With five coal mining fatalities in West Virginia so far this year, Democrats have renewed their push for legislation that has languished in the Republican-controlled House.
California Rep. George Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., issued a joint statement vowing to keep the promises they made to families affected by the “entirely senseless and preventable tragedy.”
More legislation is essential to helping the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration better execute its job, they said. That includes subpoena powers, tougher penalties for safety violations and more protections for whistleblowers.
“The inaction is shameful,” they said. “On this anniversary, every elected official should remember our responsibility to those miners who make a living in a dangerous job, not to special interests so shortsightedly and recklessly invested in the status quo.”
Rep. Nick Rahall’s latest version of the stalled legislation would require mine operators to maintain records of their rock dust purchases so regulators can verify they’re properly addressing the constant hazard of explosive coal dust.
It would also require MSHA to develop a staffing succession plan, ensuring it retains a sufficient number of trained personnel.
And Rahall wants to require the creation of an independent investigation panel with subpoena power for any accident involving three or more deaths.