Well, now we know. Of the 31 people in the mine when it exploded, 2 lived and 29 didn't. The press will now go through the obligatory and inevitable post-mortem in which they finally deign to notice problems they just didn't have time to bother with as long as, you know, only a few people died because of them. They're only interested when a lot of people die. That's sexy, I guess, and one or two is just, like, boooooring. As for shameless flouting of health and safety laws? Yawn.
This week's blast comes after a year in which the Upper Big Branch mine had repeated problems with methane buildups. Since April 2009, federal regulators have cited the mine eight times for "substantial" violations relating to the mine's methane control plans, according to the records.
In two instances, the regulators found the mine operator was calibrating methane monitors every three months even though it is supposed to be done every 31 days. The delays in attending to the monitors meant they could not properly detect the gas, a risk inspectors said could lead to severe injuries or prove fatal.
On April 30, 2009, federal regulators found that the mine had failed to follow methane-related safety precautions. Regulators stopped work in a section of the mine until the ventilation was corrected.
The NYT, for instance, just got around to doing a little investigative work and discovered - surprise! - that Massey Energy, them what owns the mine, has been much more concerned about fighting all the fines they've been wracking up than they were about making sure the pisspoor safety conditions actually got, you know, fixed.
After [the] explosion...evidence quickly surfaced that the mine had been cited for hundreds of violations over the last year, including many serious ones.
Federal mining officials said Friday that they believed the mine's safety record was poor enough to declare that it had a "pattern of violations," which would have allowed them to step up oversight and to shut the mine down every time a significant violation was found.
But their hands were tied, they said, because Upper Big Branch, like many mines, had contested many of its violations - a tactic that helps mine owners fend off fines and delay added scrutiny.
The total fines the Massey Energy Company...paid for infractions there in the last year, just $168,393 in all, is just the latest example of what former regulators, inspectors and miners say is an agency that lacks muscle - a testament to the industry's political clout....
I should say. What's a life or two - or 29, for that matter - compared to the importance of the kind of political clout that can protect you from having to prevent them or feeling the financial pain of any consequences when you don't? Obviously, our politicians think so. They have been cheerfully weakening health and safety laws and deballing watchdog agencies for 30 years whenever the industry (and its money) told them to.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration...remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and does not always use the powers it has.
The agency can seek to close mines that it deems unsafe and to close repeat offenders, but it rarely does so. The fines it levies are relatively small, and many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency .
And its criminal sanctions are weak, the result of compromises over the 1977 Mine Act that created the agency. Falsifying records is a felony, for example, while deliberate violations of safety standards that may lead to deaths are misdemeanors.
Perhaps in the wake of these deaths the Democrats will make some attempt to close a few of those loopholes but the Blue Dogs will most likely object and side with the GOP like they always do and nothing will happen. Or if it does, the mineowners will simply go on as they have for a hundred years, ignoring safety rules, ignoring regulations, side-stepping or breaking laws because doing what they're supposed to do might jeopardize their precious profits, and the Democrats will go on as they have been doing ever since they became Republicans in everything but name and protect the mineowners who pay into their campaigns from any chance that they might suffer some substantial penalty arising from their illegal activities.
"Every place I've ever worked, safety has been a distant second to production," said Billy Brannon, 30, from Harlan, Ky., who has been a miner for nine years. "If you take 30 minutes out of the day doing it right, that takes a lot out of the tonnage of the mine."
What's few unimportant lives compared to that? Nothing, apparently. Miners keep on dying, the owners keep on ducking responsibility, the pols keep on protecting them and making sure they don't have to actually change anything they're doing that's killing miners, and then more miners die.
And so it goes.