Coal mine safety still a concern three years after disaster
Sept. 25, 2012, started out like any other day for Randy Smith.
A section foreman with more than 33 years' experience underground, Smith headed to work at Metikki Coal, a mine owned by Alliance Coal near Mt. Storm in Grant County.
He'd accomplished that day's task thousands of times before: sliding out some tubing used for ventilation. And yet, in a split second, the veteran miner nearly lost his life.
The tubing slid out too far, causing a chain reaction that led to a partial roof collapse. Hitting him first in the shoulder, the fall eventually buried his legs. He broke his foot and ankle, "crushed" his heel and broke his shoulder.
"No one appreciates coal mine safety more than what I do," Smith, newly elected Republican delegate from Preston County, said from his office at the Capitol.
Three years ago today, 29 coal miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. In that time, laws have been passed and lawsuits have been filed.
A sudden uptick in mining deaths this year has politicians and industry members alike concerned for safety.
There have been 24 West Virginia mining fatalities since Upper Big Branch, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. There were six additional deaths in 2010, six in 2011 and seven in 2012.
But the rate seemed to climb early this year, with five miners killed in separate incidents. Four occurred within a two-week span in February, which led Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Feb. 20 to call for a statewide "stand down" to review safety procedures.
Procedures and regulations aren't the problem, Smith said.
"To be honest with ya, us as coal miners are probably our biggest enemy. Because a lot of the guys, like this year, the fatalities, a lot of these guys have 20, 30 years mining experience," Smith said.
"They're not the younger people getting killed, it's the older guys that are getting killed. We're not taking care of business, we're not paying attention to what's going on around us. You just get complacent. We can't do that," he said.
There's never been more training for miners, Smith said. On any given day, there could be six state or federal inspectors at the mine.
Working while an inspector is watching is different from when no one is looking, Smith said.
The nature of the job is inherently repetitive and at times complicated. Green or experienced, a miner can get complacent or lazy. That's a dangerous combination in an already dangerous environment.
"A lot of times we get hurt because we're lazy, we want to do it the easy way. You take a shortcut, the next thing you know you're crippled up because you took a shortcut," Smith said.
There are times when safety is out of a miner's hands, Smith said. While he believes most coal companies have the best intentions, he admits there are bad apples. And companies bear their own brunt of the safety burden, he said.
Last year, the Legislature passed a mine safety measure directly linked to circumstances that lead to unsafe conditions at UBB. The House of Delegates and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin crafted the legislation, which addressed unsafe levels of the combustible gas methane and increased penalties for safety violations.
For House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, holding those in charge accountable was one of the strongest portions of the bill. Caputo, a longtime representative for the United Mine Workers union, said the measure requires mine superintendents to sign off on inspection logs.
"Because for far too long, they could basically take a walk and say they weren't responsible, they didn't see the books, they didn't know what was going on at the operation and they didn't know that things were in the condition they were in," Caputo said.
"This legislation does that. No longer can they hide behind their title and act like everything's in good shape."
The measure isn't perfect.
In the UBB disaster, excess methane and coal dust combined to create the massive explosion. Federal law requires mining equipment to shut down automatically if methane concentrations reach 2 percent. State law says it's illegal to mine if they reach 1 percent, and the bill calls for methane monitors to shut down the equipment once levels reach 1.25 percent.
There's no technology to actually make that happen, Smith and Caputo said.
"It's not on the market, you can't buy it. So how do you use it when you can't buy it?" Smith said.
Caputo and others say the Tomblin administration is dragging its feet implementing higher rock dust standards.
"Rock dust is our only barrier to prevent explosions. Rock dust is a must, standards must be upheld. Those are things we need to move on ASAP," Caputo said.
There's a grisly truth to coal mining fatalities: Every death is a lesson. With every death, the industry and lawmakers alike learn ways to better protect workers.
UBB was no exception, said Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main during the West Virginia Coal Association's annual mining symposium at the Charleston Civic Center on March 7.
"The tragedy caused us all to take a deeper look at the weaknesses in the safety net expected to protect the nation's miner, pointed out that the culture affecting mine safety and health had to change, and that MSHA needed to more aggressively use its tools under the Mine Act to enforce the law," Main said.
Main said that after the tragedy, the agency began increasing compliance notifications, implementing enhanced enforcement programs and streamlining the agency's administrative structure. It also tried to cut down on the backlog of citations pending litigation.
No rule or regulation can replace a miner. Family and friends of the 29 killed at UBB still hurt, said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone. Stollings, a doctor, remembers going to the mine shortly after learning of the explosion. He wanted to see if he could help in either of his professional capacities.
Coal miners are resilient, but Stollings said his constituents aren't happy with weak safety regulations.
"I think some of them are kind of fatalistic: What God wants to happen will happen. And I'm sure that the immediate family members are still devastated and disappointed probably, and when they read things that it hasn't gotten much safer, I'd say they get mad," Stolling said.
Tomblin is asking for a moment of silence at 3:01 p.m. today, the time of the explosion. He'll also have a ribbon-placing ceremony at the miners memorial on the Capitol grounds.
Although the explosion happened hundreds of miles from Smith's mine, the blast resonated deeply with him and his fellow miners. Every miner knows someone who has been in a dangerous situation, and many have seen friends die on the job.
But increased mine safety starts with the miner.
"The only one that can get a handle on it is the coal industry, ourselves," Smith said. "You're not going to save us, the politicians aren't going to save us. We're going to have to start saving ourselves. We're going to have to start being more responsible, start looking out more for each other, and start taking it personal."
Business editor Jared Hunt contributed to this report.