Headline Writer Misses the Point?

Posted in Uncategorized on May 2, 2010 by minesafetywatch

Goodness knows there are more important things in this world than a headline that fails to fit the story. Nor are they rare: headlines generally are written by busy people other than the reporters.

While catching up with coverage, this one grabbed my attention, though, at Business Week:

How 2006 Mine-Safety Law Led to ‘Broken’ U.S. System
(Update2) April 28, 2010, 11:30 AM EDT

In my book, “led to” implies a causal relationship, direct or indirect. In a headline, “Broken U.S. System,” to me implies a whole schema.

Several posts back, I actually predicted that some critics might suggest the cause of the recent explosion was too much regulation, rather than too little. Based on the headline, it looked as though this might be coming true.

But no. The Business Week piece covers a hearing I also attended last week — where that particular prediction did not come true. It also includes interview material and additional background information.

And as I read it, nothing in the body of the Business Week piece suggests that the 2006 law bore any causal relationship to an overall “broken” mine safety system.

Joe Main, head of MSHA, is quoted as saying the MSHA “pattern of violations” part of the system is “broken.” Some have indeed connected the higher penalties under the 2006 law with increasing legal contests, which in turn reduce a mine’s chances of being identified with a pattern of violations. But even that chain of causality, as I read it, is not made fully explicit in this particular piece. And the pattern of violations provisions were rarely used — either before the 2006 law or after.

Readers who follow the piece all the way to the bottom will learn that most of those quoted are suggesting that the 2006 law did not go far enough.

Yet, if someone reads the headline without delving into the actual story — as many readers do — it is almost guaranteed to give the opposite impression: that the 2006 law made things worse.

* * *

Meanwhile, at NPR we get a story that the FBI has undertaken an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing at Upper Big Branch, including the possibility that someone at MSHA took bribes. (An update stated that an investigation of MSHA has been denied but that the FBI is indeed engaged in some kind of investigation. Meanwhile NPR stated that it stood by its original story.)

It is not the first time that the FBI has looked into a mine disaster.

Following the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, five government agencies took part in the accident investigation: MSHA, the Utah State Mine Inspector, the Utah State Fire Marshal’s office, the Emery County sheriff, and the FBI. The FBI was there because of a rumor that the fire was caused by arson. That rumor turned out to be absolutely false.

As for the bribery rumor, rumors are always rampant after a catastrophic accident, and I would hope this one turns out to be equally false.

Unfortunately bribery convictions have not been unknown in the past history of MSHA. Twelve years ago Gardiner Harris reported in his Louisville Courier-Journal series, “Dust, Deception and Death,”

since 1992, 11 inspectors have been convicted of taking bribes.

I do not happen to recall any recent cases, however, and would hope that any such wrongdoing is history at this point.


Reducing FOIA To Absurdity

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2010 by minesafetywatch

In the two weeks following the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, I filed four Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Labor in my capacity as Washington correspondent for Mine Safety and Health News.

These requests were filed because I was not having any success simply asking MSHA and DOL press officers for these particular items of information. As a journalist covering a breaking news story of urgent public interest, I filed the FOIA requests electronically and asked for expedited processing, as the FOIA law provides.

Up to two weeks later, I received – not the information, but simply letters acknowledging the requests from the MSHA Division of Coal Mine Safety and Health.

Although MSHA stated that my requests for expedited processing were granted, the letters also said that I could probably expect the actual responses — wait for it — “within 45 working days after the date of this letter.”

Because the acknowledgement letters were dated between April 23 and April 27, by my calculation that would put the actual responses around the end of June.

That would make a total of up to 11 weeks from request to response. The FOIA law requires response within 4 weeks — technically, 20 working days — for ordinary FOIA requests, let alone for expedited ones.

Moreover, the acknowledgment letters did not promise that the requested documents will be released, only “a response.” Based on that wording, the promised response could turn out to be a denial.

To add to the absurdity, at least three of these four requests were for materials that are or should be readily available within the agency. And to complete it, two of those requests were already – essentially – moot due to information released by other agency offices after the FOIAs were filed.

Here are the requests:

One FOIA on April 13 requested the approved ventilation plan at the Upper Big Branch Mine. On April 22, without notice to me, the plan was posted on the MSHA website. (See my earlier post.) Yet according to the Division of Coal Mine Safety and Health, it could take until the end of June to fulfill this request. Absurd.

Another FOIA on April 13 requested standard MSHA preliminary report forms on the 29 fatalities at the Upper Big Branch Mine. (This was before the West Virginia Medical Examiner officially released the names on April 15.) The request stated, “Failing that, I request a list of the fatal victims or any document containing such information.” On April 20, an MSHA spokeswoman provided a set preliminary report forms. (She noted that two of these forms were believed to contain errors concerning the work experience of the two individuals. We did not use the information flagged as erroneous. Requests for updated forms, however, have so far been unavailing.) Yet according to the Division of Coal Mine Safety and Health, it could take MSHA until the end of June to fulfill this request. Absurd.

One FOIA was for a copy of MSHA’s own emergency response manual as of April 5, applicable to guiding agency activities in a mine emergency. Again, according to the Division of Coal Mine Safety and Health, to respond to this request could take until about the end of June. Yet either MSHA has such a document, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, how long does it take to say no? If it does, how long is realistically needed to photocopy the manual, write it to a disk, or post it to the agency website – where numerous other agency manuals are posted — and notify the requester? Absurd.

One more FOIA was for a copy of the fan chart(s) from the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, as collected by investigators. (These would show any abnormal fan behavior, including stoppages, before or because of the explosion.) Again, the Division of Coal Mine Safety and Health stated that responding to this request could take until about the end of June. I am not sure of the volume of material, but the identical time frame specified for all four requests seems curious. Even if copying these charts poses some kind of practical problem – which seems unlikely in this age of digitization — the agency should at least be able to state within 20 working days whether it intends to release the material and roughly when.

Since the accessibility of the information can hardly be an issue, the cause for the inordinate processing times most likely is bureaucracy. Based on my experience, that means compartmentalization, internal red tape, rigid reliance on standardized procedures, excessive centralization, over-lawyering, and multiplying levels of reviews, signatures and countersignatures. It means focusing on the letter of internal agency procedure while missing the spirit of the law and common sense.

The compartmentalization may be the worst. In MSHA – as in many other agencies, no doubt – administration of FOIA has become organizationally cut off from its sister functions of public information and media relations. If the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, this is a likely cause.

In general, moreover, I believe Congress never intended the FOIA to be micro-managed by specialist government attorneys, though the trend has been in that direction. If employees throughout an agency are educated on FOIA principles and encouraged to work with requesters, this can markedly reduce average processing time, internal paperwork and necessary levels of review. Employees generally educated in the principles of FOIA can handle most requests without legal advice and recognize when they need to seek it.

However it has come about, in regard to these requests the Freedom of Information Act is functioning more like the Obstruction of Information Act.

As I’ve said before, some of MSHA’s public information functions have been noticeably better performed in the wake of Upper Big Branch than after Sago in 2006 and Crandall Canyon and 2007.

This is not one of them.

Footnotes: On April 26, I did have a telephone call from an MSHA clerk about the FOIA request for the ventilation plan. We discussed the fact that the plan was now on the website, and I registered my dissatisfaction with having been blind-sided by the unannounced Web posting. On consideration I decided not to write another letter to withdraw the request but to let the agency FOIA procedures play themselves out. It should also be noted that I was in charge of the FOIA program at MSHA before retiring from the agency in February 2004 after a 25-year career in the agency’s public information and media relations office.

# # #

Two More: Already Worst _Full_ Year in Coal Since 2006

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2010 by minesafetywatch

As everybody no doubt has heard by now, MSHA yesterday evening announced that the second miner entrapped at the Dotiki Mine the previous night was found dead and both miners were recovered from underground. I am more sorry than I can say.

The two fatalities raised the official death toll in the nation’s coal mines this year to 35. Unfortunately, that makes 2010 already the sector’s worst full year on record since 2006 — the year of Sago, Aracoma Alma and Kentucky Darby — and the third worst year in this decade.

Official fatality count (coal mines only)

2000–38…………………….2010–35 (through April 28)

If my arithmetic is not in error, by the way, that is a total of 741 people who have died in coal mines since 1991.

The Upper Big Branch accident, of course, is the worst single coal mine accident since 1970. (The Sunshine silver mine fire in 1972, however, cost even more lives, a total of 91.)

More Tragedy

Posted in Uncategorized on April 29, 2010 by minesafetywatch

Almost unbearable.

One miner was killed and another remained unaccounted for in a roof collapse that occurred at about 10:40 p.m. last night in Alliance Resource Partners’ Webster County Coal, LLC, Dotiki Mine, Hopkins County, Ky., MSHA has reported.

Rescue personnel found one of the miners dead at 8:35 this morning, according to a 1:00 p.m. website update by the federal mine agency. The other miner was described as “trapped under rock.”

“Rescue personnel entered the mine beginning around 11:30 p.m., and traveled approximately four miles by conveyance to the area” of the entrapment, MSHA said in its statement. “Rescue efforts, which include stabilizing the roof and loading out debris, had to be halted around 4:50 a.m. due to adverse roof conditions. These efforts resumed after the roof was stabilized.”

Some may not recall that the Dotiki Mine was the scene of a major fire on Feb. 11, 2004. The blaze caused no injuries, but it took several days to extinguish the fire and several weeks to restore the mine. The effort also demanded considerable resources from MSHA. The chief of MSHA at the time, Dave Lauriski, praised all parties in the effort which, he stated, saved 360 jobs.

[Update: MSHA didn’t cite any contributory violations in the 2004 fire, according to the agency data retrieval system. “The blaze started with a diesel supply tractor,” the agency stated. MSHA and company personnel later cooperated on a technical paper about the recovery effort.]

Alliance Resource Partners, L.P. (ARLP) was formerly known as MAPCO Coal. The company’s website says that as of last December it had some 3,090 employees and assets of $1.1 billion. The company stated that it sells more than 80% of its product to electric utilities under long-term contracts.

“Joseph W. Craft III has been President, Chief Executive Officer and a Director since August 1999 and has indirect majority ownership of our managing general partner,” the company website stated.

Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News gave permission to post the following information, based on an update to subscribers:

The mine works three shifts with 367 employees. The mining height is 60 inches.

The mine’s NFDL rate was 3.01 last year compared to the national average of 4.03, with the mine logging 18 injuries.

The mine reported 25 roof fall incidents or “falling materials” (which may or may not involve injuries) in the last year (see list below).

It had been cited on April 13th for failing to report an accident, and failing to preserve evidence. MSHA could not offer any details at this time.

Past roof accidents included the following. Information is taken from the mine operator’s reports to MSHA:

2/16/2010 Employee was starting his first steel in the roof, when a piece of gob fell out catching his ring finger on his right hand between the piece of gob and the boom.

1/28/2010 While the bolter was moving up the employee was beside the bolter when a piece of material fell out from the rib and the corner of the roof hitting him in the lower back causing some hair line fracture’s to his vertabra.

1/8/2010 Accident Only A fall of the roof occurred on the 6th 54 belt at x-cut 128 in the South East Life of Mine Mains B.

11/19/2009 Accident Only A fall of the roof occurred in the S.E. Life of Mine Mains C at x-cut 433 in the belt entry. The fall measured 60′ in length by 20′ wide and it was 5′ to 6′ thick. There was no personell, equi pment nor ventilation affected.

11/13/2009 The employee was operating a remote controlled miner when a piece of draw rock fell out and struck him in the hand causing a laceration.

10/19/2009 Accident Only Fall A fall of the roof occurred in the S.E.L. of main A at e-cut 83 in the supply rd. The fall measured 30′ in length 15′ wide by 5′ thick. There were no personnel, equipment or ventilation affected.

9/26/2009 Employee was pinning a header hole when a small piece of sharp rock fell adn hit him on the arm causing a laceration. Employee received 2 stitches.

9/25/2009 EE was installing a catwalk at a header when a piece of rock hit him on the shoulder causing a laceration. The EE received 8 stitches. This happened at the 17th header.

9/10/2009 EE was installing roof bolt when he went to look up a piece of rock fell out and hit him in the forehead. The rock measured 4″ long X 2″ wide and 1/2″ thick. The EE received 6 stiches in his forehead.

8/19/2009 Accident Only A Fall of the roof occured on the south east life of mine mains B at x-cut 144 on the supply road. Ventilation, personnel not equipment where involved on affected.

8/12/2009 The EE was operating a roof bolter when some material fell off the canopy and struck him in the mouth, breaking his front tooth out.

8/10/2009 The employee was scaling rock on the supply road when a small piece of material came in conatct with his left arm. He received 14 staples.

8/7/2009 Employee was walking to the face when some material came in contact with his left arm. This happened on #2 unit. The employee received 6 stitches. His hard hat knocked loose material down on arm.

6/22/2009 Accident Only A fall of the roof occurred in the #5 unit in the 11th southwest mains in teh #3 entry inby, the tailpiece at X-cut #5. Length was 35′, width 22′ and thickness was 6′. Ventlation, personel nor equipment where involved or affected.

6/8/2009 The employee was bent over when a piece of material hit him in the back (middle). The employee continued to work until 8/7/09 when we sent him to see a specialist. An MRI was done on 8/13/09. We did not get the results until 8/20/09. On 8/6/09 the employee started hurting – said he couldn’t work.

5/29/2009 Accident Only A fall of the roof occurred on the 1st NE submains at x-cut # 11 on 4B supply road. Approx. 50 ft long, 18′ to 18.5′ wide and 6′ to 8′ thick. Ventilation, personnel nor equipment were involved or affected.

4/29/2009 While the employee was putting up a curtain he bent over to get another role of curtain, when he raised up, his head hit the rock knocking it loose and it came down on his back.

4/9/2009 Accident Only A fall of the roof occurred in the 1st South East Sub Mains (# 4 Unit) Inby the tailpiece in the # 1 Entry throught the x-cut to the # 2 Entry.

4/8/2009 The employee started his second steel when a rock came out of the ATRS and came in contact with the employee’s arm. The employee received 10 stiches in his upper arm.

3/9/2009 Accident Only A fall of the roof occured on the south east life of mine mains parellels at crosscut # 31 #7 Entry. Ventilation, personnell nor equipment were involved or affected.

3/9/2009 The employee was installing a pin when a rock slid off the boom of the bolter cutting the employee’s arm. The employee received 15 stitches.

1/22/2009 Accident Only A fall of roof occurred two crosscut outby the dotiki IV bottom in doors in the 6th south west sub mains. There were no equipment, ventilation nor personnel involved.

UMWA Enters Investigation; Will Public Also Have Access?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 26, 2010 by minesafetywatch

The UMWA has just announced that it will be joining in the investigation of he Upper Big Branch explosion as a representative of some of the mine’s employees, under a precedent established after the 2006 explosion at Sago:

TRIANGLE, VA – The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has been designated
a miners’ representative in the ongoing investigation into the disaster at
the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners lost their lives
in an April 5 explosion.

“Although Upper Big Branch is a nonunion mine, federal regulations
permit the UMWA to represent the miners at any mine if two or more of them
designate us to represent them on safety issues,” said UMWA International
President Cecil E. Roberts. “That has happened at Upper Big Branch. The
federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has confirmed it.

“The UMWA intends to fulfill our responsibility under federal law to
the best of our ability.” Roberts said. “Our representatives delivered the
papers designating us as miner’s representative to the mine site late Friday
afternoon and did gain access to the property.”

The names of the miners making the request are being kept
confidential due to their concern of possible retribution by Massey Energy,
whose Performance Coal subsidiary operates the mine.

That’s correct: all it takes under federal mine safety law is two miners notifying MSHA that they are designating a certain representative for purposes of mine safety — this can be anyone at all, including a union, and the miners do not need to be union members. This principle was hashed out after Sago, including maintenance of confidentiality concerning the names of the miners represented.

This step will allow UMWA representatives inside access to investigative processes including site visits and any voluntary interviews conducted behind closed doors. They will join representatives of the mine operator, who are normally present for any such interviews.

If any miners or others being interviewed on this basis request confidentiality, precedent is that the federal and state investigators can provide that by excluding both company and miners’ representatives. Interviewees also are allowed to bring a personal representative such as an attorney, if they wish.

Key interview principles were set back in 1985, during the Wilberg mine fire investigation, which I happen to remember because I was there as a public information specialist for MSHA. The Society of Professional Journalists sued MSHA for access to the closed-door sessions, which went on for weeks. The SPJ forced MSHA to tighten its ground rules for such interviews.

As part of its response at the time, MSHA agreed to release transcripts of the interview sessions just as soon as the interview phase of the investigation was basically complete. We then gave out transcripts that had been prepared for the investigators by a professional court reporter. This compromise prevented cross-contamination of individuals’ memories, as might happen with detailed daily news coverage of everything being said. Yet it allowed the media and public to examine the transcripts reasonably promptly, and decide for themselves if the investigation was being fairly conducted.

That precedent was followed in other major investigations for years. I well remember stacks of interview transcripts arriving in the MSHA public information office for mailing to interested reporters (in the days before the Web…does that make anyone else feel old?). And I well remember the extra copies saved for years to meet the occasional later request, until we regretfully had to discard them during an office move, as late as 2002.

The only transcripts held back — and we took this very seriously — were a few where interviewees asked for confidentiality. Investigators would establish at the start of every interview whether the interviewee wanted comments kept strictly private. In practice, only a few interviewees said yes to the option of confidentiality. Their requests were fully respected.

To my knowledge, the distribution of the non-confidential interview transcripts during an investigation never did any harm, and it contributed to public understanding.

Starting in about 2001, however, a general rollback in public information occurred and, among other facets of this, MSHA began to find excuses to withhold transcripts in such investigations, irrespective of the “harm” standard established under FOIA. I saw this from inside MSHA until 2004 and subsequently from outside.

Excuses — as I recall — included the possibility that interviewers might have to go back to one or more interviewees for additional details (traditionally, would just issue supplemental transcripts later); requiring that interviewees sign their transcripts before release; and a simple preference for pushing off all requests for information until MSHA was ready to publish its conclusions. Later, the agency apparently made an efort to treat all investigative transcripts as confidential, whether confidentiality was actually requested or not, and to withhold them even after the investigation was complete.

In one case (I was told), MSHA actually refused to share an interview transcript with the interviewee and his lawyer, on the grounds that the interview had been confidential. (Which of course would make it impossible for the interviewee to sign the transcript. Perfect.)

At Sago, MSHA seemed to be headed down the same road until the state of West Virginia posted transcripts online for all to see, an action that — again — did no harm and contributed to public understanding of the accident, its impact and the process of investigation.

It remains to be seen whether MSHA and OMSL will again conduct in-camera interviews, whether they will again offer confidentiality to interviewees without pressing it upon them, and whether the public will be allowed a window into the proceedings in the form of non-confidential transcripts, public hearings or both.

A side comment: some attorneys in the Departemnt of Labor, in my experience, seemed determined to force MSHA public information practice into the same mold with OSHA.

Some, it appeared, have seen OSHA as the standard article and MSHA as something of a wayward stepchild. OSHA has been part of the department since 1970, while MSHA (formed as MESA in 1973 from one branch of the old Bureau of Mines) was renamed and grafted onto the Department of Labor only in 1978. An 8-year lag, more than 30 years in the past, doesn’t sound like much, but such is the nature of bureaucracy.

OSHA has a tradition of far less openness. One reason for that is that MSHA and OSHA have laws that differ in some critical areas, with MSHA’s being much tougher in key respects. Unlike most, mining is a “pervasively regulated industry.” Unlike OSHA inspectors, MSHA can walk into any mine workplace at any time without employer permission and without needing a warrant. The mine law also specifies that a very wide range of enforcement documents and other information are to be available to the miners and public.

I hope that by now, department attorneys realize that while the two job safety agencies may be sisters, they are far from being twins. Congress made the MSHA law different for specific reasons, including disasters not unlike this latest explosion. It makes no sense to demand that MSHA take its lead from OSHA.

Profoundly Moving Occasion

Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2010 by minesafetywatch

That has been the reaction from everyone I know who saw even part of the memorial service this afternoon in Beckley, W.Va.

Here follows the text of selected portions: the words of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Governor Manchin.


To all the families who loved so deeply the miners we’ve lost; to all who called them friends, worked alongside them in the mines, or knew them as neighbors, in Montcoal and Naoma, or Whitesville, in the Coal River Valley and across West Virginia -– let me begin by saying that we have been mourning with you throughout these difficult days. Our hearts have been aching with you. We keep our thoughts with the survivors who are recovering and resting at the hospital and at the homes. We’re thankful for the rescue teams. But our hearts ache alongside you.

We’re here to memorialize 29 Americans: Carl Acord. Jason Atkins. Christopher Bell. Gregory Steven Brock. Kenneth Allan Chapman. Robert Clark. Charles Timothy Davis. Cory Davis. Michael Lee Elswick. William I. Griffith. Steven Harrah. Edward Dean Jones. Richard K. Lane. William Roosevelt Lynch. Nicholas Darrell McCroskey. Joe Marcum. Ronald Lee Maynor. James E. Mooney. Adam Keith Morgan. Rex L. Mullins. Joshua S. Napper. Howard D. Payne. Dillard Earl Persinger. Joel R. Price. Deward Scott. Gary Quarles. Grover Dale Skeens. Benny Willingham. And Ricky Workman.

Nothing I, or the Vice President, or the Governor, none of the speakers here today, nothing we say can fill the hole they leave in your hearts, or the absence that they leave in your lives. If any comfort can be found, it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God — (applause) — who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls.

Even as we mourn 29 lives lost, we also remember 29 lives lived. Up at 4:30 a.m., 5:00 in the morning at the latest, they began their day, as they worked, in darkness. In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hour-long journey, five miles into a mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in.

Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a convention center; that lights up our church or our home, our school, our office; the energy that powers our country; the energy that powers the world. (Applause.)

And most days they’d emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they’d emerge, sweaty and dirty and dusted from coal. Most days, they’d come home. But not that day.

These men -– these husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers sons, uncles, nephews -– they did not take on their job unaware of the perils. Some of them had already been injured; some of them had seen a friend get hurt. So they understood there were risks. And their families did, too. They knew their kids would say a prayer at night before they left. They knew their wives would wait for a call when their shift ended saying everything was okay. They knew their parents felt a pang of fear every time a breaking news alert came on, or the radio cut in.

But they left for the mines anyway -– some, having waited all their lives to be miners; having longed to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and their grandfathers. And yet, none of them did it for themselves alone.

All that hard work, all that hardship, all the time spent underground, it was all for the families. It was all for you. For a car in the driveway, a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities that they would never know, and enjoy retirement with their spouses. It was all in the hopes of something better. And so these miners lived -– as they died -– in pursuit of the American Dream.

There, in the mines, for their families, they became a family themselves -– sharing birthdays, relaxing together, watching Mountaineers football or basketball together, spending days off together, hunting or fishing. They may not have always loved what they did, said a sister, but they loved doing it together. They loved doing it as a family. They loved doing it as a community.

That’s a spirit that’s reflected in a song that almost every American knows. But it’s a song most people, I think, would be surprised was actually written by a coal miner’s son about this town, Beckley, about the people of West Virginia. It’s the song, Lean on Me -– an anthem of friendship, but also an anthem of community, of coming together.

That community was revealed for all to see in the minutes, and hours, and days after the tragedy. Rescuers, risking their own safety, scouring narrow tunnels saturated with methane and carbon monoxide, hoping against hope they might find a survivor. Friends keeping porch lights on in a nightly vigil; hanging up homemade signs that read, “Pray for our miners, and their families.” Neighbors consoling each other, and supporting each other and leaning on one another.

I’ve seen it, the strength of that community. In the days that followed the disaster, emails and letters poured into the White House. Postmarked from different places across the country, they often began the same way: “I am proud to be from a family of miners.” “I am the son of a coal miner.” “I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.” (Applause.) They were always proud, and they asked me to keep our miners in my thoughts, in my prayers. Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. (Applause.) And then in these letters, they make a simple plea: Don’t let this happen again. (Applause.) Don’t let this happen again.

How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American Dream?

We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground — (applause) — to treat our miners like they treat each other — like a family. (Applause.) Because we are all family and we are all Americans. (Applause.) And we have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another.

There’s a psalm that comes to mind today -– a psalm that comes to mind, a psalm we often turn to in times of heartache.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

God bless our miners. (Applause.) God bless their families. God bless West Virginia. (Applause.) And God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)


Governor; the families of the miners that we lost, and the President and I had the pleasure to meet.

I learned about the courage and valor and gumption of miners sitting around my grandfather’s kitchen table in Scranton, Pennsylvania, hearing stories — stories of men they knew and lives that were lost. But I actually learned more from Robert C. Byrd, who is here — serving with him so many years. (Applause.) His incredible pride in his state and his miners is only matched by his loyalty. And it is good he was here today.

The men we remember today went into the darkness so that we could have light. They embraced a life of hard work and a career full of peril. It was dangerous — it was dangerous work and they knew it, but they never flinched. What amazed me is how they saddled up every day, squeezed in side by side for a cramped journey into the heart of darkness. Many of them loved it; some of them dreaded it. But all of them, all of them approached it with dignity, resolve, and strength.

They went into the mines, as been referenced earlier, not only to provide for themselves and their families but, in a very direct way, for all of us. And though — and though this work defined them, it did not describe them.

As Nick Rahall said, they were fathers, grandfathers, sons, nephews, husbands, and fiancés. They loved hunting, fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers. They hated the way Coach Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan. (Applause.) They rebuilt cars. They loved motorcycles. And they practiced random acts of kindness. They had their given names, but as we all learned today, they answered to Cuz, and PeeWee, and Smiley. Some had — some had been mining for decades, some for months. One was planning a wedding; one was planning for retirement. As individuals, these men were strong; they were proud; they were providers. Collectively, they represent what I believe is the heart and soul and the spine of this nation. (Applause.) And, ladies and gentlemen, the nation mourns them.

To every member of every family that has been touched by this tragedy, I can say that I know what it’s like to lose a spouse and a child. And I also know when the tributes are done and the flags are once again flying at full-staff, once the miners you see today go back to work, that’s when it will be the hardest for you all. When life has moved on around us, but is yet to stir within you, that’s when you’re most going to need one another.

Because for other people, for the lucky ones, life gets to go on — but as a community, and as a nation, we would compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged. Certainly nobody should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood. (Applause.)

But as the Governor and Senator Rockefeller said, we’ll have that conversation later. But before that, the rest of us bear responsibility as well. And that responsibility is to be aware of, to recognize, to respect, to honor those who risk their lives so that we can live ours, and those who will continue to do this hard and dangerous work.

So often when we’re met with this kind of sorrow and pain we search, as the clergy here today can tell you, for meaning and purpose where there seems to be none. We look for answers to questions that are literally hard to ask, and even when answered at this moment they provide little relief.

To paraphrase a communion hymn in my church, I have a wish for all of you, all of your families: May He raise you up on eagle’s wings and bear you on the breadth of dawn, and make the sun to shine upon you. And until you’re reunited with those you lost, may God hold you in the palm of His hand. For you know this band of 29 roughneck angels watching over you are doing that just now, as they sit at the right hand of the Lord today — and they’re wondering, is all that fuss about me? (Applause.)

You know, folks, there is a famous headstone in an Irish cemetery in Ireland, and it reads this — it says, “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal. Love leaves a memory no one can steal.” I can tell you from my own personal experience that eventually the painful heartache you feel will be replaced by the joyful memory of the ones you love so dearly. My prayer for you is that that day will come sooner than later.

May God bless you all, and may God protect all miners. (Applause.)


I want to welcome everyone and thank you for joining us today.

Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, and hope for tomorrow.”

We are here to honor the 29 brave men we lost and the two who were injured during that devastating blast in Montcoal, West Virginia, on April 5th.

Today is a day for us to come together, as a state, and speak about the strength of our miners. The strength of their families. And the strength of West Virginians.

Today is also the day for our state, with the nation joining us, to begin the healing process that allows us to move forward when we’ve been so badly wounded.

I want to thank everyone around the nation and throughout the world for their prayers and wishes during the last couple of weeks.

We feel your sympathy and love here in the Mountain State.

My main goal since I first learned of the explosion has been to make sure our miners were represented honorably and that their families would have the support and protection they needed during this difficult time.

I have personally been through this type of tragedy, losing my uncle and many friends in the 1968 Farmington, West Virginia Mine explosion.

So, it was important to me, to make sure those who did not know West Virginia mining families, would come to understand the character and substance of these wonderful people who play such an important role in this great state and nation of ours.

As I listened to our First Lady read each of our 29 miners’ names, and watched as each family came forward to place a helmet in honor of their loved ones, I was saddened like all of you, but I was also inspired.

Amid the pain, I see courage.

It’s the same courage I saw in the faces of these wives, these mothers, these fathers, these brothers, these sisters, these sons and these daughters, those long nights as we all waited for more news at Upper Big Branch.

Each of you exhibit a will and a spirit that we all admire, and this service today is our expression of love and hope for the comfort we wish you all.

These were strong men. They were strong in stature. Strong in character. Strong in love. Strong in courage. Strong in their communities. Strong in their commitment to family. Strong in their faith in God.

Today is our chance to be strong in their honor.

These were hard-working and brave men. It takes brave men to work beneath the surface. Today is our chance to be brave in their honor.

Mining was the job they chose, and the work they loved. They were very skilled and very good at what they did.

And I believe that each of those 29 miners – like every miner working today as well as many of their fathers and grandfathers that worked before them – had not only a strong commitment to provide a good living for their families, but a deep and patriotic pride that the work they did and the energy they produced made America strong and kept her free.

And my wish is that every American takes the time to say a prayer for every coal miner who is still working today to keep our nation vibrant and safe, and not only thank them, but honor them for their work and patriotism.

I also want to take a moment to recognize our rescue teams, who are seated on the floor among our fallen miners’ family members.

They stood side by side with all of us throughout this disaster and put their own lives at risk to find their fallen brothers.

And when we ultimately learned we had lost them all, our rescuers switched their cap lights on and went back in the mine to bring their friends home in the most honorable way.

We all thank you and are honored you are here.

I want to thank President Obama and Vice President Biden who have come today to make this journey of honor with us.

And I hope that everyone here today – and everyone watching around this nation — has discovered during this time of tragedy what’s so special about our miners and our mining families.

After today, we turn our focus to their legacy.

I don’t have the answers about why this has happened. But I promise you we will find out and I pledge that your loved ones will not have died in vain.

We owe it to you. We owe it to them.

I know from personal experience that you will never fill the void from their loss. But I also know that you will never lose the precious memories that you have of these wonderful men. Our miners.

A Chinese proverb goes something like this:

“To get through the hardest journey, we need take only one step at a time . . . but we must keep on stepping.”

Our journey through grief is a long one, but our healing has begun and we are all stepping forward. Thank you and God bless you all.

MSHA Releases Upper Big Branch’s Approved Ventilation Plan

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2010 by minesafetywatch

On April 9, wearing my correspondent’s hat for Mine Safety and Health News, I emailed a member of the Department of Labor public affairs staff, suggesting that this document be posted. On April 12, I again requested the plan. On April 13, I filed a FOIA.

The documentation has now been added by the agency to its single-source Upper Big Branch page here.

(You might think that, as a requester, I might have got word from someone at MSHA that the plan was now posted, rather being left to stumble across it. Or maybe not. Ken Ward has had some things to say lately about transparency at MSHA. My take: It’s mixed, which means much better than before, with some notable lapses. I hope to expand on this particular evaluation over the week end.)

This ventilation plan contains a LOT of material — typical for larger mines. One fact that seems to stick out is that nine revisions of the plan were approved by MSHA in 2010 prior to the explosion — the last of these on March 22. Revisions in mine ventilation plans are not intrinsically unusual, but they might be a good place to start reading. Such revisions often result from back-and-forth between a mine operator and MSHA technical staff; they could indicate what potential ventilation issues had been on the minds of company and MSHA personnel.