The investigation into the deaths of two miners last week in a West Virginia underground coal mine is just beginning, so the specific cause is not yet known.
However, it is known that the two miners were working in a mine with one of the worst safety records in the country, according to federal officials. Its case further illustrates the shortcomings of regulations for reducing the hazards in an inherently dangerous occupation.
The site of the fatal accident was the Brody No. 1, a mine owned by a subsidiary of St. Louis-based Patriot Coal and located near Wharton in Boone County. The company said the workers were killed during a severe coal burst as they were doing retreat mining, a method that involves yanking supporting pillars of coal from inside the mine and letting the roof collapse as miners and equipment work their way out. In light of other serious mine accidents that have occurred during retreat mining, regulators may want to take a close look as to whether the technique should be allowed in the future.
But the larger issue has to do with the mine’s safety record and what regulators are allowed to do — or not do — about it. Last fall, Brody No. 1’s record of 253 serious health and safety violations during the previous year caused safety regulators to label it a “pattern violator.” That designation is reserved for the industry’s worst offenders.
In its annual report from last December, Patriot Coal blamed the previous owner of the mine. But accepting that at face value is difficult to do. Patriot’s subsidiary purchased the mine Dec. 31, 2012, according to , but the mine was cited for 192 safety violations from April 1, 2013, to March 31 of this year. Thirty-three of the citations were for high or reckless disregard for miners’ health and safety.
The company also said in its annual report that it is “vigorously contesting” the designation.
It’s time for Congress to let irresponsible mine operators know that rampant violations of safety laws will no longer be tolerated. Essentially, enforcement of safety laws must be strengthened to the point that mine owners have no doubt they will be shut down if they are not safety conscious. Unfortunately, that’s not the case now.
— The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington