Deaths at West Virginia Mine Raise Issues About Safety
By Ian Urbina and Michael Cooper, New York Times
Montcoal, W.Va. — Rescue workers began the precarious task Tuesday of removing explosive methane gas from the coal mine where at least 25 miners died the day before. The mine owner’s dismal safety record, along with several recent evacuations of the mine, left federal officials and miners suggesting that Monday’s explosion might have been preventable.
In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records.
It is still unclear what caused Monday’s blast, which is under investigation. But the disaster has raised new questions about Massey’s attention to safety under the leadership of its pugnacious chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, and about why stricter federal laws, put into effect after a mining disaster in 2006, failed to prevent another tragedy. [link]
Overlooking the editorial use of the word "pugnacious" in describing Don Blankenship - who is anything but - there are certainly questions arising out of this tragedy that demand answers. And if he was too far removed from the day-to-day operation at this particular mine, than answers from the man who is directly responsible for the safety - and lack thereof - of the human beings that work at this particular Performance Coal Company facility are called for.
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People not familiar with the relatively isolated regions of America's coalfields won't appreciate the devastating impact that an accident like this has on the community psyche. Just ten days ago or so I was in conversation with a gentleman who lives and works about 20 miles northeast of this location (as the crow flies) - in Montgomery - talking with him about how hard it was to find good help in the area. He told me that "the smart ones leave" and the remainder are either on meth or they work in the mines, where the pay is much better than he could ever afford. All the able-bodied (and non-drug-impaired) men work in the mines. And when an accident like this occurs, everyone is affected.
I was listening to a talk radio station coming out of Charleston yesterday, trying to get a better understanding of what had happened (and to learn the fate of those four miners still missing) and heard of a story of one particular miner who was reporting for shift duty on the day tragedy struck. He had just entered the mine when the blast literally tore the shirt off his back. Though severely injured, he lived to tell the tale. But his son, brother and nephew didn't. They died instantly when the mine blew up. That's how these things can devastate whole families and entire communities. Everyone works in the mines in this part of the world. Everyone is affected.
That makes something like this all the more sorrowful.
And the need for answers all the more demanding.
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In that same radio conversation, I also listened to a lot of caller anger directed at those who were responsible for mine safety. Understandable. And justifiable.
This should not have happened.