Pass law to protect mining whistle blowers

The more that's revealed about Massey Energy's intimidation of workers to cover up safety violations at the West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed, the more you want to think that Massey was an extreme outlier in the coal industry.

But then consider Arch Coal's retaliation against Kentucky miner Scott Howard, and intimidation looks less like an exception and more like an industry rule.

Howard was disciplined and fired after reporting the same kinds of hazards that caused the disaster at Upper Big Branch. Both examples underscore the need for Congress to approve stalled mine safety legislation that would better protect whistle blowers.

Named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and backed by both of that state's senators, the legislation also would solidify the government's ability to shut down mines that are repeat offenders and prevent companies from delaying safety fixes by filing appeals.

Labor Department officials say they need a stronger mandate from Congress to utilize a long-standing provision allowing the shut down of mines for a pattern of violations.

By shutting down Upper Big Branch, regulators could have averted the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years by forcing Massey to follow basic safety rules or forfeit the profits from selling the mine's metallurgical coal.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration last week reported that its investigation has concluded Massey was at fault and also pressured employees to conceal safety hazards from government inspectors.

Massey fired a foreman who stopped operations for an hour to correct ventilation problems. Ventilation is a life-or-death matter underground, not just because miners need oxygen, but also because explosive gases build up unless fresh air is circulated. The ventilation was not working the day of the disaster. Neither were water sprayers on machinery that sent off sparks, igniting a small amount of methane. A buildup of coal dust sent the explosion barreling through the mine.

Federal investigators found that Massey recorded hazards in a book viewed only by Massey employees when safety problems interfered with production. But safety hazards were omitted in the record required by federal law and viewed by government inspectors. Falsifying mine safety records would be a crime.

Massey's new owner, Alpha Natural Resources, says it's doing its own assessment of the findings.

In the case of Howard, a Letcher County resident and miner for more than 30 years, administrative law judges have twice found reasonable cause that Arch retaliated against him for his whistle blowing and ordered him reinstated while his discrimination complaints are adjudicated. After a ruling last month, Arch decided to pay him for not working rather than allow the safety advocate back into its mines.

Arch first disciplined Howard in 2007 after he showed a video of malfunctioning seals at a mine run by Arch subsidiary Cumberland River Coal. The year before, faulty seals were implicated in explosions that killed 17 miners.

Last month an Arch official, Anthony Bumbico, told a congressional hearing that Howard went public with the video of the faulty seals without ever notifying management of the hazard.

In fact, according to federal records, Howard and others had notified management of the faulty seals "on many occasions" before he showed the video at a public hearing on mine seal standards.

As the coal industry frequently points out, we all depend on coal for power. If the industry won't protect the miners on whom we all depend, the public must demand that our government protect them.