A $209-million settlement unveiled last week between the U.S. government and the new owner of Massey Energy is the largest mine-safety penalty ever. But it's not enough.
The 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia — and the thousands like them who toil underground to power our homes and businesses — deserve justice. And justice can only be served by criminally prosecuting those responsible for what investigators called an "entirely preventable" disaster.
Massey's officers, former chief executive Don Blankenship and his lieutenants created a culture in which miners risked their lives by going to work and risked their jobs by pointing out dangers. Massey's executives turned the clock back 100 years on mine safety then took the Fifth when questioned about the April 5, 2010, disaster.
While nothing in the settlement protects them from prosecution, weaknesses in federal law may let them off the hook, one of many reasons Congress should approve proposed reforms.
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Legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and supported by the Labor Department, would fix weaknesses revealed by Upper Big Branch. Reforms would:
■ Allow company officials to be prosecuted for approving "policies or practices that result in criminal conduct" and make criminal mine-safety violations felonies.
■ Protect whistle blowers and miners who complain about dangerous conditions and guarantee no loss of pay during safety-related closures.
■ Strengthen requirements for spreading inert rock dust to prevent explosions. Massey's basic housekeeping was so abysmal that what should have been a minor ignition of methane turned into a monster explosion powered by the untreated accumulations of flammable coal dust.
■ Give the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration better enforcement and investigatory tools.
■ Authorize independent investigations of major mining accidents that would take an unbiased view of MSHA's performance. A decade of disasters, going back to the Massey coal waste spill that fouled 100 miles of Kentucky waterways, reveals the necessity of this reform. When MSHA never owns up to its own shortcomings, the chances for repeating tragic regulatory mistakes are compounded.
For example, the Charleston Gazette reported last week that MSHA learned of a heightened potential for methane leaks at Upper Big Branch, such as the one that eventually set off the fatal explosion, years before, but never followed up to make sure the company carried out the recommended fixes. After the 29 deaths, when West Virginia investigators asked about the history of methane leaks, a U.S. Department of Labor lawyer who was on the MSHA investigation team shut off that line of questioning.
MSHA has been doing a much better job of protecting miners under the Obama administration and Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main. But the agency's culture of covering up its own mistakes is deep. Federal law provides for independent investigations in many areas and should in mine safety.
Sadly, the proposed mine safety reforms have gotten nowhere and are given little chance in a political atmosphere that reviles worker safety laws as job-killing government intrusion, even as weaknesses in the laws can, and do, kill workers.