MCT REGIONAL NEWS/BUSINESS
By Ry Rivard
Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.
April 04--There was urgency following the death of 29 coal miners after an explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County last April 5.
Urgency to pass new laws.
Urgency to find out what happened.
Urgency to make sure it never happened again.
Yet, 364 days later, lawmakers in Congress and the state Legislature have done little but talk about changing mine safety laws. Investigators still haven't said what caused the explosion. And, since the disaster -- the worst in mining in 40 years -- 22 more have died at American mines.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
At a meeting in the state Capitol eight days after the massive explosion and three days after he informed the world four miners who everyone hoped had survived the blast had been found dead in the mine, then-Gov. Joe Manchin said the state would move fast to tighten its mine safety laws.
He said his ideas were already being turned into legislative language by his general counsel.
"We're going to move quicker than the feds," Manchin said then. "I don't want to wait."
Despite that, West Virginia hasn't passed any sort of mine safety package like it did following the 2006 Sago mine disaster. Still, the state could move more quickly than Congress -- if only because Congress too hasn't updated mine safety laws.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has tweaked its administrative rules and begun what amounts to a crackdown on unsafe mines. But reformers say the agency still lacks key powers and that its administrative rules could be abandoned by a future White House.
There also have been some changes by state regulators, like the executive order Manchin issued to make mines apply more rock dust, which helps prevent the buildup of coal dust, a combustible material that can cause explosions. But, several months after that order, a state official admitted regulators hadn't been attempting to enforce the new standards.
Of course, there's a reason for this. There is debate in Charleston and in Washington over whether it makes sense to create new laws before investigators release their findings on what happened.
But it's not clear if investigators will know exactly what caused the explosion or that there will ever be a settled-upon version of events. Massey has spent much of the last year disputing and contradicting information that MSHA has made public.
On one side of the debate over when to pass a new law, some argue that MSHA must have new tools to shut down unsafe mines and that coal miners need more whistleblower protections so they may reveal unsafe conditions without losing what may be the only job they ever had.
On the other side, some argue creating new regulations before the investigations are finished doesn't make sense because we don't know what we're trying to prevent from happening again.
If that sounds familiar, it's basically the same debate lawmakers were having 11 months ago.
"It's certainly important that we not pile laws upon laws that are already on the books yet not enforced -- so in a sense, that's a good thing," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. said last week. "Yet there are legislative issues that need to be addressed, that do not have to await -- as the new (Republican) majority in the House wants us to -- await the outcome of investigations, which, frustratingly, may take more time than we wish because of the Department of Justice's involvement."
'We're going to get to the bottom of it'
The justice department is attempting to prosecute officials at Massey for the explosion. Inspectors had cited Upper Big Branch more than 3,000 times since 1995 for alleged problems at the mine, including failure to properly control the buildup of explosive gases.
According to a Sunday report by the Associated Press, MSHA Chief Joe Main said that the criminal investigation will not slow his agency's investigation into what happened.
But some lawmakers like Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., have expressed frustration with MSHA's investigation. Rockefeller said last week he was losing patience with how long it is taking the agency to release its findings.
Manchin, now a U.S. senator, said following a briefing last week from MSHA, that the justice department is "driving the train" right now. But he said that made sense.
"If there's accusation that this was preventable and it was the direction of humans, they need to do their due diligence and we need to prosecute," Manchin, D-W.Va., said.
He said the pace of the investigation frustrates members of the congressional delegation but that it is different from the Sago investigation because of the violence of the explosion at Upper Big Branch.
"This is a much different investigation," he said.
There are actually three investigations, one by MSHA, one by the state's own regulators and an independent one led by Davitt McAteer who did a similar investigation after the 2006 Sago mine disaster.
"With three different investigations -- from the feds, the state and Davitt's independent -- I know we're going to get to the bottom of it," Manchin said.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said Congress needs to wait until then to act.
"To pass laws without the true causes -- any loopholes, any other issues that MSHA feels that they need in their arsenal to protect and make the mines safer -- we can't do that until we get this report, I mean, I think it would be unwise to do that," Capito said.