West Virginia Mine Deaths Highlight Need for Congressional Action on Mine Safety

Two miners were killed May 12 while working at Brody Mine No. 1 in West Virginia, a coal mine with a history of "significant and substantial" violations, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). While the cause of these two deaths remains under investigation, the incident is just the most recent example of the inadequacy of current mine safety and health programs that are intended to protect miners from on-the-job hazards. To correct these problems and prevent future disasters, MSHA must improve its oversight and enforcement of hazardous mining operations, and Congress must provide the agency the resources it needs to accomplish its important mission.

2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion Spurs Reform

The Brody Mine incident occurred less than 10 miles from the site of the explosion of Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010, which took the lives of 29 workers. Following the Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA was heavily scrutinized for failing to recognize obvious signals that a disaster was imminent.

According to AFL-CIO's 2014 report, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, "[a]n internal review of MSHA's activities prior to the UBB explosion in April 2010 found that inspectors failed to identify deficiencies in Massey's dust control program and ventilation and roof control plans, despite repeated inspections of the mine." Further, the review attributed the shortcomings to a "lack of inspector training, inexperience and management turnover."

In response to that incident, MSHA took numerous steps to improve its oversight and enforcement activities. Shortly after the explosion, MSHA began to conduct "impact inspections" to target the mines with the worst safety records, as well as those with a high risk of explosions. According to MSHA's website, the agency has conducted 739 impact inspections since April 2010 and has issued 12,122 citations, 1,109 orders, and 51 safeguards.

MSHA has also taken steps to update its patterns of violations (POV) program. Under the program, MSHA annually evaluates the mines within its jurisdiction to identify those with repeated safety and health violations. For mines with a pattern of violations, MSHA will issue a POV notice, which is followed by a complete inspection within 90 days. If, during this inspection, the inspector finds a "significant and substantial" violation of health and safety standards, the inspector will issue a withdrawal order requiring the mine operator to remove all people from the affected area. Workers and others are not allowed to return until the inspector finds the violation has been corrected and no other "significant and substantial" violations exist at the mine.

The Brody Mine Incident Highlights Need for Further Improvements

Despite MSHA's efforts to update its oversight and enforcement activities following the Upper Big Branch explosion, much more work remains to be done.

In 2013, MSHA issued 514 citations, orders, and safeguards against Brody mine, many for serious violations. MSHA proposed penalties of $3,315,750 for those violations. Since placing it on the POV list in October 2013, MSHA issued 69 withdrawal orders for Brody mine. Nine of the 54 citations/orders identified in MSHA’s October 2013 POV notice to Brody mine relate to "conditions and/or practices that contribute to roof and rib hazards."

Officials believe the two deaths at Brody mine may have been caused when the roof of the mine collapsed on them while they were performing a risky mining procedure called "retreat mining." The practice involves miners removing pillars of coal that are holding up the roof of a mine. Sections of the roof in front of the miners are supposed to collapse, but if something goes wrong, the entire roof or the wrong sections can fall in, trapping and killing the workers inside.

Despite MSHA's listing of Brody mine as a repeat violator, the agency's authority only allows it to shut down affected areas of the mine. Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator of coal mine safety and health, told the Associated Press, "We just do not have the ability or authority to shut a mine just because it has so many violations."

Although MSHA alone cannot completely shut down a mine that has repeatedly violated health and safety standards, the agency can ask a court to issue an injunction to stop a mine from operating. The agency has only sought such an injunction once, against a Massey Energy mine with a pattern of violations (not Upper Big Branch).

Congress Must Update MSHA's Authority and Provide Additional Funding

The authority and resources MSHA needs to further improve its oversight and enforcement activities require congressional action. First, Congress must enact legislation, such as the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, to prevent future disasters by deterring violations and empowering miners to raise safety concerns. The bill would update MSHA's POV program, boost criminal and civil penalties, and delegate authority to the agency to issue subpoenas and take additional enforcement actions. Although this legislation has been introduced in the last three sessions of Congress, it has yet to garner enough support to pass in both chambers.

Congress must also appropriate needed resources for MSHA to carry out its activities. Although Congress increased the agency's budget shortly after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010, MSHA's budget was substantially impacted by sequestration cuts in FY 2013. The FY 2014 budget did include more resources for MSHA compared to what the agency received during sequestration, but after adjusting for inflation, that funding level is still lower than any year of the Obama administration prior to sequestration's automatic spending cuts.

Fiscal Year Enacted Budget (in millions of dollars, adjusted for inflation)
FY 2009 $383
FY 2010 $388
FY 2011 $381
FY 2012 $385
FY 2013 $360
FY 2014 $376

Congress must correct its course and provide MSHA with the funding and authority it needs to carry out its critical mission: to protect our nation's miners from on-the-job hazards and long-term injuries and diseases and to prevent future disasters like the ones at Upper Big Branch and Brody mine.

*Table source: Department of Labor FY 2015 Budget Justification, Budget Summary Tables, http://www.dol.gov/dol/budget/2015/PDF/CBJ-2015-V1-02.pdf

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