West Virginia disaster: Will Congress take on coal mining companies?
Mining companies have been slow to adopt new safety requirements. Critics say the West Virginia disaster shows that Congress needs to step in. The industry says it needs clearer guidance.
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There has yet to be the “eureka moment” when the mines are in compliance and the technology is proven to work, says Davitt McAteer, head of MSHA during the Clinton administration and leader of the Sago disaster investigation.Skip to next paragraph
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More than technology, though, what is needed are stronger laws to prevent accidents, says Mr. McAteer. For instance, MINER Act doesn’t address safety practices during shift changes. Most mines require workers to walk to the bottom of shafts to relieve co-workers, rather than having the first group leave the mine before the replacement group enters – a practice that would cut in half the number of people put in harm’s way, but would temporarily halt production.
Coal companies resist changing the procedure because they want to “keep the machine running [and] coal producing, so you don’t lose 15 minutes,” he says.
MSHA is stymied as the law stands today, McGinley says. Loath to take a hard line on the industry under Bush, MSHA is trying to reassert itself, but not without difficulty.
MSHA reports that the total amount of enforcement actions taken against coal operators increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009. But problems persist. MSHA has gotten only 34 of 491 mines to comply with a 2006 mandate that all mining companies install improved communications systems, such as two-way wireless devices that can talk with and locate trapped miners, according to a report by the Associated Press last week.
“Every disaster doesn’t have to happen,” says Christopher Shaw, a policy analyst at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a Washington think tank. “They go back and ask, ‘Why did it happen?’ It always turns out people didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
Industry officials say it is unfair to cast all the blame on business for the slow pace of adoption for MINER Act safety regulations. "If there is fault, the fault is that I don't think anyone got very clear guidance from the previous leadership of MSHA," National Mining Association lobbyist Bruce Watzman told AP.
But Joseph Main, head of MSHA, said that the industry was dragging its feet. He said action was being taken – MSHA took six mine operators to court in early March and cited 64 companies in Kentucky and Tennessee for not compiling with regulations – but more needed to be done to speed up the process.
MSHA “has to be serious and bring appropriate fines and actions if the operator is breaking the law,” says Mr. Shaw.
And that might require new laws, says McGinley. New legislation should give federal regulators “greater authority to bring criminal sanctions to bear … in order to hold mine managers up to the CEO level criminally responsible.”