In 2010 the eyes of the world were drawn to the mining industry. On April 5, an explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia resulted in the deaths of 29 miners. Six months later, on October 13, live TV cameras captured the rescue of 33 miners in Chile who were trapped for 69 days in the San José copper-gold mine.
These incidents have again raised the issue of mine safety. In the U.S., the Upper Big Branch Mine tragedy—although still under investigation—has already led to changes in occupational health regulations and safety policy for miners.
Immediately following the West Virginia accident, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, beefed up its enforcement arm. In response to criticism that it failed to close the mine despite an above-average number of citations and that it had never once used its injunctive power to close a mine, MSHA launched an inspection blitz. It targeted 57 underground coal mines and forced six to close until violations could be corrected.
The agency also implemented tougher provisions for its Pattern of Violations (POV), a system designed to increase long-term safety compliance by targeting operations that demonstrate a pattern of health and safety violations. Once a violation is written, MSHA can then withdraw miners under the POV. At the same time, MSHA ordered its inspectors to make sure that no advance warning was given before spot checks—a regulation that is already on the books but has often been ignored.
The new hardline policies have delivered results. In August, MSHA named four mines where it had found “egregious violations”; in September, the agency announced the results of a five-month impact inspection program that targeted 111 coal and metal/nonmetal mines and issued over 200 withdrawal orders. While withdrawal orders do not close a mine, they do suspend production and allow only those involved in safety to enter the mine.
This signals a change in practice. In addition to conducting regular inspections, the agency is attempting to identify the most dangerous mines and target them with increased enforcement and public exposure through surprise inspections, which continued through the fall. In November, 13 mines were identified as having a potential pattern of violations—the first step in giving notice that safety improvements must occur to avoid closure.
In September the agency also issued an emergency temporary standard requiring underground coal mines to apply additional non-combustible material—up to 15 percent in some cases—to roofs, floors and walls. This change in regulation came as a direct result of a finding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s research, which concluded that over the last century mechanized mining methods had resulted in coal dust particles becoming smaller and more explosive. Although the standard was likely planned for some time, the Upper Big Branch explosion undoubtedly accelerated its implementation. MSHA estimates that compliance will cost underground bituminous coal operators $22 million.
New federal legislation was also drafted in response to the West Virginia mine explosion. There are several bills. The most prominent—the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2010 sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA)—was defeated in December 2010 by a vote of 214 to 193 but will likely be reintroduced in some form in the new Congress. It included increasing criminal and financial penalties and giving MSHA more powerful enforcement tools while holding it more accountable. If the bill passes in the new Congress, miners who call attention to unsafe conditions will be protected, and operators will be required to notify employees of hazards and violations.
This bill followed a pattern of sweeping mine safety reform in the aftermath of tragedy. In 2006, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act was passed following the Sago Mine Explosion (claiming 12 lives) and Alma Mine fire (five casualties) in West Virginia, and the Darby Mine explosion (two casualties) in Kentucky that year. The MINER Act, sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), addressed emergency response and preparedness, rescue team availability and the need for wireless communication and tracking. It also raised civil and criminal penalties and led to the development of underground wireless communication.
Advances driven by the MINER Act suggest that new mine safety and health legislation should address the development of explosive conditions rather than disaster response. Technology that can continuously monitor the atmosphere in a mine and prevent the development of dangerous conditions is the next logical step. But one major barrier to adopting the new monitoring and communication technology in underground coal mines is the question of whether it could survive an explosion.
The National Mining Association (NMA) indicates that mine operators have invested $800 million in complying with the MINER Act, and a similarly substantial investment would likely be required with the passage of new mine safety legislation. The NMA opposed the passage of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, indicating that enforcement of current legislation by MSHA had been weak. The association maintains that 87 percent of U.S. mines operated in 2009 without a lost time accident and that proposed legislation does little to increase safety.
But mine safety policy should not be decided by those with narrow interests. Each American will consume almost 1,500 tons of raw minerals over his or her lifetime. This means that while mine safety policy directly affects the lives of people who work in mines, getting it right should be a national concern.