For Kentuckians with mining experience, disaster resonates

Miners across southeast Kentucky listened for nearly five days to news from West Virginia, and every shift break was peppered with questions and hopes for four miners unaccounted for in a blast at Montcoal, W.Va.

"We lose sleep watching the different news, listening to the radio. All day long you think about it," Letcher County miner Scott Howard said Friday after his shift underground.

They hoped because of the slimmest chance that airtight refuge chambers, installed and required by regulators after deadly blasts in 2006, were able to serve some purpose.

They hoped because, a former miner said, someday it could be them underground, and they'd want others to have enough hope to keep searching.

It took rescue teams nearly five days to find the final four miners killed in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. Twenty-nine miners died, probably instantly, in Monday's blast, investigators said Saturday, and didn't have time to deploy rescue chambers. Two miners survived.

It is the highest death toll in a single U.S. coal mine disaster since a coal dust explosion killed 38 people in 1970 in Hyden, Ky.

Laws passed after previous disasters didn't help the 29 men who died in West Virginia last week, Howard said.

"Those chambers are all right." Howard said. "But those chambers are for after accidents happen. I think they should spend more money and time and effort on preventing an accident."

He said most miners don't know the law and rely on simple common sense to keep themselves safe. But they have little control over what happens in other parts of the mine, or on the surface.

"Another human being is just another piece of equipment," in the eyes of a coal operator, he said.

Howard said he has never worked for Massey Energy, but it has a reputation for putting production ahead of miner safety.

"Worst coal company in America," he said. "But it pays good money. Coal miners literally sacrifice themselves to provide for their family."

Howard works for Cumberland River Coal Co., which owns what used to be the Scotia mine where two methane explosions killed 26 miners and mine inspectors in March 1976.

The disasters are frighteningly similar. In fact, Scotia is the reason mine rescue teams and investigators took so long to get inside Upper Big Branch.

Teams entered five times to try to find out if the four unaccounted men were still alive, by some miracle. Four times, explosive levels of methane and smoke from a fire on the coal face turned rescuers back.

In 1976, after the first methane explosion at Scotia killed 15 men, miners and Mine Safety and Health Administration officials re-entered the mine. A second methane explosion killed 11 of them.

Scotia was on rescue team members' minds in West Virginia, said Ronnie Hampton, the mayor of Lynch in Harlan County and a former state mine inspector.

Rescuers' own safety must come first, he said. He said his team was one of the first to enter Harlan County's Kentucky Darby mine after a fatal explosion in 2006, shortly before Hampton retired. Mine rescuers know how dangerous that is.

"It's like walking down the barrel of a gun," he said.

"It just made my blood curdle to hear what happened down there" in West Virginia, said Hampton, who was a roof bolter for U.S. Steel before becoming a state miner safety analyst in 1977.

The analyst program was created after the Scotia disaster, Hampton said, to grade mine workers' practices and help them work more safely.

He said he thinks the vast majority of miners work safely and want to do the right things. But in a deep, dark, gassy mine, one small mistake can be catastrophic.

"It's a moral issue," said Hampton, who is also a preacher. "Certain individuals will always endanger other individuals."

The responsibility is even larger when the individual is a boss or operator, Hampton said. "He should be the example, the standard for what should be done."

Massey Energy officials say its safety record does set an example, that accidents and injury rates are lower than they've ever been.

In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, the company said, "The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day. Media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded. Our lost-time incident rate has been better than the industry average for 17 of the past 19 years, improving significantly in recent years. These improvements have been achieved through concerted effort and significant investment."

But the company has a troubling recent history of MSHA violations. There were 12 fatal accidents from 2006 to 2008 at its Kentucky mines, and 66 nationwide.

In Kentucky during the same period, Massey had 96 coal-dust and methane-control violations that rated a fine of $5,000 or more, according to MSHA databases.

The company had 83 "unwarrantable failures" — meaning knowing violations of safety rules — and more than 100 that warranted an automatic withdrawal of miners.

The Upper Big Branch mine had dozens of such violations.

Howard, who has testified before Congress on mine safety, said he wonders when the government will decide how many safety violations it will take to stop an operator from mining coal.

Blankenship has said the MSHA numbers don't tell the whole story. Many of the mine's violations were fixed the same day they were issued, he said in a statement this week.

Safety advocates and MSHA officials have said the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine is a sign that operations weren't right.

"It really troubles me greatly all these comparisons," Lexington lawyer and miner advocate Tony Oppegard said of industry and media reports that examine Massey's record compared to other companies and West Virginia's record compared to other states.

"Why do people say, 'Well this mine had 50 violations last year, but that mine had 200 — that's really not that bad,'" he said. "Somehow it's OK to have X number of violations."

Oppegard said he and the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg have begun pushing MSHA for changes to regulations under the federal Mine Act. He said he hopes to close loopholes that allow companies with repeated known violations to escape shutdowns and punishment.

"Coal miners shouldn't have to accept safety violations to earn a living," Oppegard said. "It seems to me it's the only industry in the country where you have that mindset that it's OK to violate the law."

Many of those laws have been put in place after major disasters — the Consol explosion in Farmington, W.Va., in 1968; Scotia in 1976; a fire in Wilberg, Utah, in 1984; Kentucky Darby and Sago, W.Va., explosions, as well as Massey's Aracoma fire in Melville, W.Va., in 2006.

Scott Howard, worn out after his shift underground on Friday, said he grows weary of the pattern. He doesn't think it will change.

"I just hate to see another disaster, whether it's one person or more — one is too many — where it could have been prevented. People just close their eyes," he said. "Who cares? That's how we feel sometimes."

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