A United States Senate subcommittee began hearings on January 23 into mining accidents that killed 14 West Virginia coal miners in the first three weeks of the month. The early details of the two accidents point to the lack of a safety culture at the two mines, and to mine owners who are able to ignore citations with impunity because of weak enforcement of safety regulations.
There have been calls for stiffer penalties and enforcement, which may find their way into the senators’ recommendations. Mine safety officials say their enforcement budget has been cut. According to The Associated Press on January 9, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller complained after the first accident that Congress had not held full oversight hearings into the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration since 2001.
Twelve of the deaths occurred after an explosion on January 2 at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, owned by International Coal Group (ICG). Two more miners perished after a fire broke out on January 18 at Massey Energy Company’s Aracoma Coal unit.
Federal mine safety officials and the mine owners will be called to testify before the 15-senator bipartisan panel. The person with the most valuable information about the cause of the Sago accident is the sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., but doctors are unwilling to predict whether the 26-year-old will recover from brain damage suffered in the explosion.
The Charleston Gazette reported that the West Virginia state legislature debated and passed a new law on January 23 to fine mining companies $100,000 if they fail to notify emergency officials within 15 minutes of a mining accident. The state’s governor, Joe Manchin, said the Sago and Aracoma mines waited too long to call for help. State lawmakers also approved measures requiring companies to provide tracking devices to locate and communicate with miners and to provide more supplies of oxygen. Currently, miners carry equipment with just one hour of emergency oxygen. In the Sago accident the men were stranded underground for more than 40 hours before rescuers reached them.
An article published in The Ergonomics Report