Black ribbons fluttered in the breeze as a homemade pinwheel bearing 29 names turned slowly, lending a splash of color to an otherwise overcast day in southern West Virginia.
Here, residents are still coming to grips with the state’s worst mining disaster in more than two decades. Part of that process continued Sunday, when President Obama spoke at a eulogy for the 29 coal miners who died in the accident.
It was with that awareness that Mr. Obama offered not only condolences, but also a concrete commitment to mine safety reform.
“In the days following the disaster, e-mails and letters poured into the White House,” Obama said. “Postmarked from different places, they often begin the same way: 'I am proud to be from a family of miners,' 'I am the son of a coal miner,' 'I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.' They ask me to keep our miners in my thoughts. Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. Then, they make a simple plea: Don’t let this happen again."
A cause has not been determined in the April 5 accident at Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, but preliminary investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration suggest excess accumulations of methane gas and coal dust could be to blame.
“All explosions are preventable,” said MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin. “It’s just making sure you have things in place to prevent one. It’s quite evident that something went very wrong here for us to have the magnitude of this explosion.”
The blast, which occurred 1,000 feet below ground, left behind what West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin described as a “horrific” scene of twisted train rails and other equipment. There were only two survivors from the 31-member crew.
The Obama administration has not yet outlined its proposals for reform. But a few key changes are among the more probable, says Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who enforced mine safety laws in Pennsylvania as a former special assistant attorney general.
- Raising the required percentage of incombustible materials like rock dust, which are used to cover the lighter, more volatile coal dust.
- Increasing methane testing in the area where miners are working from every 30 minutes to every 15, or even real-time, and placing greater emphasis on detection instrumentation.
- Revamping the pattern of violation screening. Under current laws, companies receive a closure order only when they’ve accumulated enough final violations. Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, received 57 citations there last month – including one for failing to properly ventilate methane – and racked up $382,000 in fines, but many were being contested, keeping them from counting towards a closure order. If all citations and violations are allowed, even those in dispute, companies may be persuaded to resolve issues more quickly in order to prevent a shutdown.
For Mr. McGinley, the hope is that the federal government will act before momentum for reform fades.
“The fear with this disaster is like it is with virtually every coal mining disaster in the last century: that we say miners won’t die in vain and this will never happen again, but then as time passes, the concern about mine safety diminishes and there’s another disaster,” he says.
Obama's visit: gratitude and skepticism
For locals gathered at Cox’s, a gas station and snack bar in nearby Pettus, W.V., anything the government can do to make coal mining safer would help. Larry Asbury spent 27 years working the mines in nearby Whitesville and said he’s glad Obama’s getting involved.
“It shows he has concern for the working class people,” Mr. Asbury said. “He needs to come down hard on safety in the mines. Every American citizen should have the right to work safe.”
But others weren’t so sure, noting Obama’s snub of West Virginia while on the campaign trail and attributing the presidential visit to little more than political grandstanding.
“It takes an explosion to get him here,” said Carl Asbury, Larry’s brother. “What was he doing six months ago? He could have been here and prevented this. It’s a shame it takes 29 miners to get blown up to get the politicians awake and enforcing the laws.”
Starting a dialogue
On Sunday, Obama chose to speak in broad terms rather than outline specific reforms.
“We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost,” he said. “They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans."
It was a wise decision to stay general, says safety advocate and US Senate labor committee special adviser Ron Hayes. Obama is not broadly popular in West Virginia, given his desire to move the country off coal and toward greener power. But a dialogue can – and should – be opened.
“Right now, you have a situation where you have 29 dead miners and people still going in the mines, terrified, feeling guilty – a lot of times it clouds things,” Hayes said. “The blame game is going to be started, and they’ve got to blame somebody. This is a mechanism of the grief process, whether it’s righteous or not.”