Tragedy in West Virginia

TRAGEDY IN WEST VIRGINIA…. As most Americans are surely aware, a mine explosion near Montcoal, West Virginia, killed 25 miners yesterday, with four others missing and rescue efforts still underway. It is the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1984, and it’s safe to say the best wishes of the entire nation go out to the families and communities affected by the tragedy.

It’s not a political story, per se, but when the immediacy of the crisis fades, there are some questions that political figures will definitely want answers to. Massey Energy, for example, will be asked to explain its safety record.

Massey Energy, owner of the coal mine where at least 25 miners died this week, and its outspoken chief executive, Don Blankenship, have long been lightning rods for critics of the coal industry.

And although the company says that its safety record is better than the industry average, Massey has frequently been cited for safety violations, including about 50 citations at the Upper Big Branch mine in March alone. Many of those 50 citations were for poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday for a total of $1.89 million in proposed fines, according to federal records. The company has contested 422 of those violations, totaling $742,830 in proposed penalties, according to federal officials.

As recently as last month, safety inspectors said miners at this location faced significant risks, citing the mine for “failing to control dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.”

If Blankenship’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s been a prominent global warming denier, and in recent years, “financed a take-over of the State Supreme Court that wound up setting U.S. Supreme Court precedent around politics and the judiciary, and then tried to take over the legislature.”

Blankenship is also a strident opponent of labor unions. Yesterday’s mine accident occurred at a site with non-union workers.

Congress has already signaled its intention to investigate yesterday’s disaster, and some Democratic lawmakers have dispatched committee staffers to the Upper Big Branch South mine to collect information to be used in future hearings.

Among the areas to get renewed attention will be federal mine-safety reforms, many of which were proposed in 2006 but blocked. The proposals included measure to seal abandoned mines where methane can build up, safer conveyor belts, improved ventilation, and stiffer penalties against companies that violate safety laws.

Many believe the reforms stand a much better chance of passage this year, in part because of yesterday’s explosion, and in part because there’s a Democratic majority in Congress more concerned with worker safety than industry complaints about “burdensome” regulations.