This will be in addition to the investigations by both state and federal mining officials.
The heart of the investigation will be — and should be — why a mine with so many past violations regarding venting methane gas and allowing combustible coal dust to accumulate was allowed to remain open. Since new regulations were put into place following the Sago mine disaster in 2006, Massey Energy Co. — which operates Upper Big Branch — repeatedly has appealed citations, thus allowing mines to stay open.
While MSHA officials say Upper Big Branch had reduced its number of citations by 60 percent, officials noted the mine should have received a warning letter in October concerning its potential pattern of safety violations. However, a computer program that screens for these patterns failed to include eight citations that would have triggered the warning.
It is not at all uncommon for state and federal mine inspectors to hand out citations for failures to abide by safety regulations. Many times the infractions are relatively minor and are corrected expeditiously. However, the number of serious violations at Upper Big Branch is disturbing.
At both the state and federal levels, the Upper Big Branch mine’s record on methane gas violations should be investigated. The question that needs to be answered is simple: Did the company’s lapses contribute to the explosion that killed the 29 miners?
Coal mines are more dangerous than most workplaces. For that reason, extraordinary steps are taken to minimize the hazards miners face. While it is impossible to make coal mines completely free of accidents, safety inspectors need the authority to ensure mines are operating as safely as possible. Many thought this would be the legacy of Sago.
‘‘Right now, we need to make sure that the rules are being complied with,’’ Gov. Manchin told The Associated Press. ‘‘I can’t sit back and assume anymore.’’
(Distributed) The Associated Press