25 Dead in Worst Coal Mining Disaster Since 1984

On this blog, we often talk about the environmental impacts of coal mining, but coal mining also destroys health, lives and communities. Yesterday’s blast in West Virginia is just the latest example — and it wasn’t the first for mine owner Massey Energy, either.

At about 3:00 PM yesterday afternoon, an explosion at Massey Energy’s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 25 miners, and rescue efforts are still underway to try and find 4 more miners who are unaccounted for.

The death toll at Upper Big Branch is the highest at a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at an Emery Mining Corp. mine in Utah. If the four missing miners can’t be rescued, this incident will be the deadliest U.S. mining accident since the 1970 explosion that killed 38 people at a Finley Coal Co. operation in Kentucky.

The cause of yesterday’s explosion is not entirely clear at this point, but most news reports are blaming an accumulation of methane gas. Federal records show that the particular seam of coal being worked on at the Upper Big Branch mine releases as much as 2 million cubic feet of methane every day.

Richmond, VA-based Massey Energy is among the nation’s top coal producers. The company produced 42.3 million tons of coal in 2005, and claims to have 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. But despite being one of the coal industry’s most profitable companies, Massey Energy has often failed to provide adequate safety measures for its workers.

In the past year alone, federal inspectors have fined Massey Energy for more than $382,000 for repeated “serious” violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch. The Upper Big Branch mine has had three other deaths in the last 12 years. As some quick math will tell you, the fines simply aren’t tough enough to deter companies from cutting corners on safety.

In 2006, two miners died in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Mine after CEO Don Blankenship personally intervened to suspend company safety policy at the mine and ordered managers to “run coal.” Massey was fined a record $1.5 million for 25 separate safety violations as a result of that tragedy, and later settled a lawsuit for $2.5 million.

In the pursuit of ever-greater personal wealth, robber barons like Blankenship are as careless about ensuring the safety of their employees as they are about protecting the planet and ecosystems. So as much as we talk about regulations to limit the environmental destructiveness of mining and burning coal, perhaps we need to focus on new regulations to protect the lives of coal miners as well. The energy revolution is coming — indeed, the dangerous conditions and low pay of coal mining are a case for, not against, clean energy. But in the meantime, coal workers still deserve to be protected.

Turns out Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) is already there. According to the Associated Press, Rahall has pledged a congressional hearing on the explosion, saying, “If we need new laws, then let’s go for it… Every mine safety law on the books has been written with coal miners’ blood, following some tragedy.”

Image credit: NIOSH

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