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Four years after reforms, why another mine disaster?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a series of coal-mining disasters four years ago, lawmakers in Washington passed the first major changes in mine safety laws in 30 years.

They hoped the measure would stop the needless deaths of workers in the coalfields.

Mine operators were required to add emergency breathing devices and airtight rescue chambers to help miners escape explosions and fires. Companies were ordered to more quickly report serious accidents and create additional mine rescue teams.

But this week in Raleigh County, none of those reforms was enough. At least 25 miners died in a massive explosion at a Massey Energy mine. Officials fear the death toll will rise higher, with four more miners still missing inside the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal.

How could this happen?

"It tells me one of two things," said longtime mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton years. "One, the law isn't being enforced or, two, the law didn't go far enough."

By Tuesday, there was evidence that both could be true.

Take the 2006 MINER Act's requirement that operators add new communications and tracking gear to help miners talk to the surface and rescuers locate missing workers.

It's not clear that such equipment would have helped any of the Upper Big Branch miners, because the initial force of the explosion may have killed them. But if they survived, rescuers would have been unable to using tracking devices to pinpoint the miners' exact location.

That's because the Massey mine had only "partially installed" communications and tracking to comply with the new federal law. In fact, only one in 10 underground mines nationwide have met the law's requirements, according to MSHA data.

In West Virginia, most underground mines have met requirements of the state's new communications and tracking gear law. But the state doesn't require that equipment to pinpoint locations of workers in the active mining section of underground operations, something that MSHA does require.

During a media briefing early Tuesday, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin and West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten made clear the difference between their agencies' requirements -- and what they could have meant at Upper Big Branch.

"We know how many people are in that area, but we don't know their exact location," Stricklin told reporters.

Wooten responded, "West Virginia law requires that we know when people are moving onto a section. It doesn't require that we track them on a section."

Mine safety officials pointed to some potential bright spots that, if the explosion had not been so large and powerful, might have helped save the miners.

Stricklin said rescue crews believed that one cache of extra emergency breathing devices appeared to have been emptied by miners after the explosion. And Wooten said officials were hoping the miners might have grabbed those self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, and used them to help make it to one of two airtight rescue chambers that would have enough supplies to keep them alive for up to four days.

"There are a lot of benefits that have been put in place" by the MINER Act, Stricklin said. "There's an opportunity for folks who have lived through the initial explosion."

Still, independent mine safety advocates on Tuesday repeated one common criticism of the MINER Act: its emphasis on emergency response instead of accident prevention.

"I've never thought the MINER Act went far enough," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and mine safety expert based in Kentucky.

"It's focused too much on post-accident measures. Those are all good, but I think we need more provisions that will stop accidents from happening in the first place."

Prodded by Congress, MSHA has since 2006 beefed up its inspection force, increased monetary fines and, for the first time ever, met its legal mandate to inspect all underground mines nationwide at least four times per year.

But Oppegard noted that new Kentucky law mandates six state inspections of underground coal mines per year. And he noted that some of the toughest provisions proposed following the 2006 disasters in Kentucky and West Virginia were not part of the final bill signed into law by President Bush four years ago.

Some House Democrats, including Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., had previously been pushing more mine safety reforms but weren't talking about those as much after President Obama was elected and appointed a former United Mine Workers safety official to run MSHA.

Now, there are indications that legislation -- and perhaps other mine safety reforms -- might be revisited.

"I want to know why this tragedy happened," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. "We will seek answers about the cause of this disaster. We will look for inadequacies in the law and enforcement practices, and I will work to fix any we find."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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