DON BLANKENSHIP

Last month I wrote and posted an essay about what could be done to help keep the politicians' promise to make sure a mine tragedy "never happens again." The reactions based on e-mails and other feedback was not surprising. Politically motivated organized labor "leaders" used the media to make derogatory comments about me personally, but failed, as usual, to address my underlying argument or the facts I presented. Instead, they threw rocks and ran away. On the other side, many of you who care about the facts and about miners provided positive, supportive and appreciative responses, so thank you.

The meaningful issue as to mine safety is not what any of us think of each other. It is not today, nor has it ever been, my goal to gain the acceptance of the UMWA - an organization that continually fails to represent the interests of coal miners. My personal experience with the UMWA began when one of their members shot our neighbor's eye out when I was a child. Other memories are that shortly after I graduated from high school, UMWA leader Tony Boyle hired assassins to kill his UMWA political opponent Jock Yablonski and the Yablonski family. Of course I well remember that in 1985 union members and an assassin shot at least five non-union workers and family members. They also killed truck driver Hayes West. Then in 1993 union members shot and killed non-union worker Eddie York.

The UMWA's parent union, the AFL/CIO, which is now headed by former UMWA President Richard Trumka, is among President Obama's biggest supporters and most frequent White House visitors. The union support effectively enables the President to carry out his war on coal and coal miners. It was no surprise when President Obama selected long term UMWA executive Joseph Main to be head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Joe Main spent the majority of his life working for the UMWA. Secretary Main seems to have brought with him to MSHA the culture of the UMWA. Like the union, the agency's policies today are clearly not designed to improve the health and safety of coal miners. The actions they take such as dictating mine cut sequences, shutting off continuous miner scrubbers, limiting extended cuts, delaying permits, etc. has the purpose of putting fear in coal operators by proving that MSHA has tyrannical powers over them. This has been the UMWA's culture since at least the 1950's. The UMWA's control over coal operators was so absolute and fear based that hardly anyone dared to even open a non-union mine in Appalachia for more than 40 years.

The clearest demonstration of both MSHA's disregard for miners' health and the exercise of their tyrannical powers is the forced idling of air filtering mine machine scrubbers. MSHA forces scrubbers to be idled even as they say that black lung disease is on the rise. At a later date I hope to post an essay dedicated solely to the insanity of idling scrubbers. You will find few if any continuous miner operators, coal managers, or even MSHA inspectors that agree with the official MSHA position of sometimes idling scrubbers. No responsible coal operator would idle scrubbers unless forced to do so by MSHA. MSHA's related practice of allowing extended cuts by continuous miners using fan sprays (while not operating their scrubbers) is akin to granting higher speed limits for automobile drivers who remove their seat belts and install extra airbags.

In summary, the UMWA's comments about me stem from a long history of disputes with Massey. Their comments do not address safety and health issues nor the opportunities to avoid more mine tragedies. It's just more of the UMWA's continuing propaganda in an effort to camouflage their support of anti-coal actions, and their lack of real concern for coal miners. Unfortunately, the UMWA's attitude now permeates MSHA with the result of illogical and unsafe regulations and environmental actions.

My supporters most frequent questions regarding the essay were: (1) why am I doing these essays since all they can bring me is trouble? and (2) do I really think what I am writing can cause a meaningful regulatory change or legislative action? The answer to the first question is simple - the truth and science based actions can save lives. Those of us with knowledge of the risks and of what can be done to address those risks have a moral responsibility to speak up - therefore I feel compelled to speak up. As to whether what I write can make a difference, yes I think it can and will. However, I am concerned that it will take at least one more tragedy wherein those then in charge of MSHA and Congress will be under pressure to consider what I have written that predicted the likely cause of the next tragedy.

The essence of my essay on mine safety is that the next tragedy will likely be the result of cutting through a gas well, cutting into old works, or experiencing a natural gas inundation. There are also many other possibilities including belt fires. The chance of any of these types of tragedies occurring can be greatly reduced with common sense and science. However, neither has been the basis for developing new laws or regulations.

When events occur that could trigger another tragedy it won't matter what the miners' or operators' politics are. What will matter is the quality of the mapping, the gas detection equipment, the ventilation system, and the training. If the politicians want to prevent a mine tragedy from ever occurring again, they need to talk to coal miners not to themselves, UMWA officials or the media. Politicians and the media may feel good about laws requiring mine shelters, but coal miners do not expect to survive mine tragedies by getting into a shelter. Coal miners know that their objective must be to prevent the tragedy - not to survive it.

There have been 60 fatal accidents since the UBB natural gas inundation tragedy. Every one of these fatalities was a tragedy. At Massey every accident and certainly each fatality was reviewed in an effort to find a safety improvement that would reduce the likelihood of another accident. But MSHA's response to these 60 individual fatalities has been pretty much a non-response.

It is important to remember that U.S. mine fatalities occur at many different mines and companies and under many different managers. However, they all occur under the oversight of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and it is this agency that has the greatest opportunity to improve the safety and health of coal miners based on lessons learned at every U.S. mine. Conversely, MSHA's failures to improve regulation based on truth, technology and lessons learned endanger all coal miners, not just those at a single mine or company.

Someone should be asking many basic questions of MSHA and of our government leaders. They could start with the following:

  1. Are some mines being denied the opportunity to operate their continuous miner scrubbers? If so why?
  2. Does NIOSH (National Institute of Safety and Health) agree with MSHA as to the idling of scrubbers?
  3. Do you believe mines are healthier and safer with scrubbers operating or not operating?
  4. Do you believe that natural gas inundations present a safety risk?
  5. Are you aware that the UBB mine exhausted large quantities of natural gas as opposed to coal bed methane after the explosion?
  6. Do you accept that other mines in the vicinity of UBB have experienced natural gas inundations in prior years?
  7. Do you believe that accurate mine mapping is important?
  8. Do you believe todays mapping is adequate given the technology now available to improve it?
  9. Do you agree that gas wells and old mine works represent the potential for causing another mine tragedy?
  10. What has been done by MSHA to improve the accuracy of mapping gas wells and old mine works in recent years?
  11. Do you believe the promise to make sure another mine tragedy doesn't occur has been kept?
  12. Do you believe it is best that an agency in charge of mine safety investigate mine accidents or should it be like the aviation industry wherein the National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents even though the Federal Aviation Administration oversees flight safety?
  13. Would it be best to review mine safety regulations before another mine tragedy or in the aftermath of the next one?
  14. Perhaps another simple question to be asked of MSHA is which is more likely to be true:
    • A dust explosion will create the presence of natural gas in a coal mine or
    • A natural gas explosion will create the presence of dust in a coal mine

Secretary Main said in November 2009 that he believed zero mine fatalities was an achievable objective in the U.S. He could be right, but it won't happen unless regulations and their enforcement are based on facts and not on politics.

My purpose in these essays is to encourage all mine professionals to use the truth to develop and lobby for some real safety improving legislation. The politicians cannot improve mine safety otherwise. Instead, the industry will just end up with more nonsensical laws. The industry must also insist that MSHA stop being an impediment to safe mining. Political correctness cannot be the industry's sole objective when miners' health and miners' lives are literally at risk.

SPECIAL NOTE TO UBB FAMILY MEMBERS:

I want to acknowledge that my prior essay resulted in a communication from a UBB victim's family member. The family member stated that my essay included information the families were not aware of.

The most important thing that the victims' families need to be aware of now is that the miners at UBB were almost certainly the victims of a natural gas explosion. Contrary to what some have suggested, the quality of the miners' work did not cause the explosion nor make it worse. Prior to the explosion neither they nor the miners on other shifts, nor the West Virginia or MSHA inspectors were focused on the risk of a natural gas inundation such as UBB experienced. The UBB miners were simply victims of an event that they didn't foresee and therefore had not planned for.

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