Main said such an inquiry is the best way to ensure a full accounting of the events. It would give Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators the power to subpoena documents and witnesses. Main explained that "each year for the last three years, the number of miners killed on the job has increased. This year started out worse than last year and we came as close as you can to another disaster at Quecreek. It has to raise questions about what’s going on in coal mine safety in this country."
Main’s call for a public inquiry was joined by J. Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA for seven years under the Clinton administration.
At the state level there have been calls for a grand jury to investigate the disaster. A grand jury would be able to file charges of criminal misconduct against state and company officials. These calls came after it was made public that state and company officials knew of unmapped mine voids and water in test wells when a permit for the mine was issued in 1999. An examination of the safety record of Quecreek’s parent company, PBS Coals, revealed other flooding incidents, and above-average accident and violation rates. Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did not order further tests before issuing the permit.
Pennsylvania attorney general and 2002 Republican gubernatorial candidate Michael Fisher has not commented on the call for a grand jury. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that Fisher did not respond to repeated telephone calls.
MSHA rejects call for hearing
MSHA chief David Laurisksi rejected the calls for a public hearing, stating that such an inquiry would not yield anything more than the investigations conducted by MSHA. He added that the number of injuries and fatal accidents in mines across the United States reached a low in 2001.
While the number of fatalities among all types of mining has been declining, deaths of coal miners have risen the last three years from 29 in 1998 to 42 in 2001.
MSHA does not have a reputation for quickly issuing reports on major accidents. For example, there is yet to be a report on the Brookwood mine explosion last September that claimed the lives of 13 miners. It was the worst U.S. mine disaster in nearly two decades. The UMWA has said MSHA cited the mine’s operator for 31 violations, but never followed them up.
A report on the October 2000 slurry spillage at Martin County Coal, a Massey Energy-owned mine in Inez, Kentucky, was released a full year after the disaster. This flooding occurred when 300 million gallons of slurry broke into old workings beneath a massive containment pond, and then poured out into valleys and streams below. Investigations showed that the solid rock barrier between the pond and the mine below was less than the company claimed and that inaccurate mine maps played a major role in the accident. MSHA fines for the spillage totaled $110,000 while Massey’s cleanup bill was $40 million.
Penn State professor Raja Ramani, appointed to head a state commission of inquiry into the Quecreek disaster, was interviewed by the Associated Press. Under the headline "United States world leader in mine safety, expert says," Ramani was quoted as applauding mine safety in this country. He said "high productivity rates...have helped ensure that not as many miners are exposed" to the dangers of mining.
In a statement on the successful rescue at Quecreek, Jack Gerard, president of the National Mining Association, spoke of the industry’s "innovative and effective safety programs." His statement claimed that there had been "a 42 percent decline in coal mine fatalities in the last decade."
The decline in fatalities pointed to by Gerard ignores the fact that a declining number of coal miners are producing more and more coal. The rate of fatalities for coal miners has not changed over the last 10 years. Between 1990 and the present, this rate has been between three and four miners killed for every 10,000 miners. The only years it dropped below three was in 1997 and 1998. Since then, the rate has been increasing.
Two more miners killed
In early August two more coal miners lost their lives, bringing to 19 the number killed this year. By this time last year 13 miners had died in mining accidents.
Jason Moore, a 23-year-old contract miner at the Laurel Creek mine in southern West Virginia, was killed August 12 when he was crushed between the boom of a mining machine and the roof of the mine. The mine is owned by Arch Coal, the second largest coal corporation in the country. Moore was employed by Titan Mining, which operated the mine as a contractor for Catenary Coal, one of Arch’s nonunion arms. An MSHA study showed that contractors account for 30 percent of all mine fatalities and injuries.
In Pennsylvania, Edward Schall, 66, was killed August 13 at a strip mine in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh, when he fell 24 feet from a highwall onto rocks below. He was walking through the stripped mine area to his work site in the early morning hours, traversing the highwall to avoid water holes when he fell.
Tony Lane is a member of United Mine Workers of America Local 1248 in southwestern Pennsylvania.
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