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Coal-Mine Tragedy Puts Enforcement Model On Trial

The Upper Big Branch tragedy has put on trial the classic command-and-control enforcement model for advancing mine safety. The Mine Act of 1977 made mines


The Upper Big Branch tragedy has put on trial the classic command-and-control enforcement model for advancing mine safety.

The Mine Act of 1977 made mines safer, but did not eliminate fatalities or major mine disasters. Congress bolstered the statute with a sweeping set of new requirements in 2006. Afterward, more regulations were written including significantly higher fines, more inspectors came on board, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration launched a get-tough approach to mine safety. As a result, many felt disasters like Sago were behind us for good.

When six miners and three rescue workers were killed at the Crandall Canyon accident in August 2007, many dismissed it as occurring before the new reforms had taken hold.

Nearly three years later, though, we come face to face with the worst underground coal tragedy in 40 years. Thus, it becomes harder to make the case that MINER Act reforms and enforcement follow-up remain a work in progress. The apparent circumstances surrounding the disaster further complicate the argument. Preliminary reports suggest that these miners died from the same combination of methane and combustible dust that have plagued coal mines since the first miner went underground. MSHA sensed a deteriorating safety situation a year or more ago and began pouring more inspection resources into the mine. We have to assume West Virginia regulators saw trouble, too, and stepped up their inspection efforts. Yet, even with inspectors crawling all over the mine, including the day of the blast, tragedy was not averted.

Predictably, those with a strong investment in the enforcement option are blaming some operators for thwarting their initiatives. And there have been calls for stronger law and more inspections. Overlooked, yet noteworthy, is an accident later that month in Kentucky that claimed two lives. That state already has six mandated inspections per year, plus four the feds perform. Was it Einstein who said the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Encouraging compliance with the law rather than promoting a safe workplace is a grave weakness of the current U.S. mine safety model. MSHA's high-dollar enforcement push in recent years has only aggravated the problem. Of course, legal compliance and mine safety are not mutually exclusive, as enforcement people would have you believe. They are sufficiently different as to virtually assure the continuation of mine fatalities.

ENFORCEMENT INITIATIVES ENCOURAGE a cat-and-mouse game whereby the regulator makes a move and the operator responds with a countermove that blunts the impact of the regulator's effort. The compliance approach also does not reward innovation or the introduction of new safety technology. Rather, the catalyst for change becomes the regulatory authority, which is subject to the vagaries of politics, budget shortfalls and bureaucratic inertia. Mine inspectors are far better than nothing, but the system suffers from fatal flaws.

After Sago, the National Mining Association convened a task force to examine mine safety. The group, which consisted of some of the best and most experienced mine safety professionals in the nation, put together a seminal report that should serve as the foundation of any new mine reform effort.

To its credit, MSHA has indicated it will hold a public forum to take stakeholder testimony on how mine safety can be improved. Sure to come from this effort will be suggestions for the agency to go in a different direction. As heavily invested in enforcement as MSHA and this administration are, it will be a tough sell. But, if the government is truly serious about improving mine safety, the recommendations will be hard to ignore.


James Sharpe holds a master's degree in environmental health sciences and is certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene. He has nearly 30 years experience in occupational and environmental health and safety. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.