The following is a cross-post of an Op-ed that fist appeared in The Register-Herald:
In Whitesville, W.Va., along Route 3, more than 70,000 pounds of granite stand as a stark reminder of the worst American coal mining disaster in 40 years.
The Upper Big Branch memorial, which is being formally dedicated this afternoon, is a reminder of the critical role that coal mining has played in the rich history of West Virginia. It has been erected not only to honor the victims of the deadly explosion that devastated this coal community more than two years ago, but also to pay tribute to all of the men and women who go to work in America’s mines today.
Every mining death is a needless death, and the effects of each one are far-reaching. In the days immediately following the UBB explosion, I sat with family members while they awaited news about their loved ones. I will never forget that day. Their heartbreak didn’t end after the funerals. They have relived their pain countless times over the past two years—through the release of each accident investigation report, indictments of company officials and the nonstop media coverage.
They need to know that the UBB tragedy was a wake-up call to the mining industry, as well as my department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
As a result of one of the most far-reaching accident investigations in MSHA’s history, we learned that Massey Energy, then the owner of UBB, promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety. Management broke the law as they endangered miners whose lives were put at risk every time they entered that mine.
We learned that Massey management created a culture of fear and intimidation in their miners to hide their reckless practices. And in the subsequent investigation of MSHA’s own internal practices, we found a number of deficiencies in the agency’s enforcement efforts at UBB that are being addressed.
As a result of the internal review team’s recommendations, MSHA has undergone significant changes in the way it conducts business.
Going forward, MSHA has revamped its inspection and pattern of violations programs to better target mine operators with troubling safety records and a history of poor compliance. We also began a “Rules to Live By” program to remedy the most common causes of mining deaths and to more quickly inform the mining industry of necessary reforms that will prevent future tragedies.
The agency continues to focus attention on preventing black lung disease and other occupational illnesses. And it is improving mine emergency response training and command and control preparedness.
But our work is not done. So far this year, 20 miners have died in work-related accidents across America. While we know many mine operators comply with safety and health rules to protect their miners from harm, we also know some do not.
Ensuring that all operators live up to lawful safety standards to better protect miners must be the overriding goal of everyone in the mining industry.
Twenty-nine miners went to work at UBB on April 5, 2010, fully intending to return home after his shift. Family members expected to welcome home husbands, fathers, sons and uncles…. Mines can be safe. Mining can be a safe job. And no miners—in fact, no workers—should ever have to risk their lives for their livelihood.
The Upper Big Branch monument was erected to honor coal miners, their contributions, and the sacrifices they make each and every day to supply America’s energy. We must never forget the toll these disasters have taken upon the families, friends and communities at large. Our nation’s miners deserve nothing less.