Unfortunately, in many cases it takes a disaster to prompt legislation that has been urged for years. After the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers in April 2010, a U.S. House committee has finally approved new legislation that would empower the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to enforce regulations and shut down coal operators guilty of repeated violations.
The legislation would allow new MSHA enforcements and implementations including:
- A required notification provided to all mine operators if patterns of violations (POV) of mandatory health or safety standards are found
- Increased inspections of mines on POV status, payable by the mine company
- Updated standards for controlling explosive coal dust-something that hasn't been done for nearly a century
- Mandatory independent investigations done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the event of any mining accident involving at least three deaths
- A public database that includes violation information on mines
The new law would give MSHA subpoena power to enforce these regulations. Civil penalties for significant violations would double to a maximum of $150,000 and increase criminal penalties to $1 million and five years in prison.
The new measures are also designed to encourage and protect workers who report mine violations. If a coal mine worker is injured while engaging in any mine-related activities, he or she is encouraged to contact a workers' compensation attorney immediately to receive all benefits to which they are entitled under state law and explore reporting options.
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co.-a company that owns the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia---argues that these new regulations only hurt the industry and place coal workers at greater risk. He reasoned that a company's own engineers and inspectors would better serve the industry because they are better trained and more competent than those employed by the government.
The Upper Big Branch Mine received 639 MSHA violations from January 2009 to April 2010. Despite the pushback from MSHA, the company admits that it was aware of multiple past violations of ventilation standards by Massey Energy and the Upper Big Branch Mine in particular.