One Year Later, Safety Overhaul Stalled-
West Virginia Mine Disaster:
A year after the worst coal mining accident in decades took the lives of 29 workers, prompting urgent calls to revamp oversight of one of the country's most dangerous jobs, not much has changed in the lives of those who toil deep underground.
Soon after the disaster on April 5, 2010, lawmakers in Congress and West Virginia vowed to overhaul mine safety laws and investigators promised to swiftly find the cause of the explosion that roared through the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia the day after Easter.
Despite the widespread media coverage and passionate speeches, a bill that would have made it easier to shut down problem mines and increased penalties for serious safety violations was quietly defeated in early December. As The Huffington Post reported that month, the legislation died due to a combination of inattention, intensive lobbying efforts by a powerful industry and mine workers' lack of political clout.
Though West Virginia's then-governor Joe Manchin pledged that he would "move quicker than the feds," the state has failed to pass any mine safety package. His successor, Earl Ray Tomblin, did sign two mine safety bills but they were watered down almost completely — instead of requiring changes, they called for studies — reports the Charleston Daily Mail.
In the past year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has ramped up its inspections, finding 4,600 violations at more than 200 mines across the country. But mine safety advocates and reformers say that the agency still lacks crucial powers. MSHA could lose a court battle with Massey Energy over whether the Upper Big Branch mine owners can undertake their own investigation into the fatal accident.
"I don't see anything that's happened," said Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. "This is one of the most powerful entrenched political powers in the country and to get change, it takes relentless pressure relentlessly applied." Parenteau added that while there is no system of laws and regulations to fully prevent such disasters, they can definitely be reduced.
And though Massey has a history of environmental problems and dozens of mining deaths, the company's executives have escaped serious punishment. Notorious CEO Don Blankenship retired in December and is due to receive a $12-million pay package. That same month, more than 18 top Massey officials refused to speak to investigators.
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