Shortly after the memorial service ended, the blame game began. Testimony before a previously scheduled U.S. Senate hearing disclosed more information about the tragedy, revealed an enforcement weakness at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and allowed several of Massey Energy’s detractors to level criticism in a public forum (See UBB Investigation, p. 38). Excerpts of the chairman’s testimony basically accuse some coal companies of being rogue operators or villains with a “catch-me-if-you-can” attitude. All of the testimony is available at www.help.senate.gov and readers are encouraged to review it. How the coal industry is perceived by these politicians is troubling and they are getting ready to act.

West Virginia Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D) and Robert Byrd (D) each introduced amendments during May to financial reform legislation (S. 3217) now under consideration. The amendments, according to the National Mining Association (NMA) would impose new reporting requirements related to safety and health performance on publicly traded companies. The Rockefeller amendment mandates new requirements solely for mining companies to report to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) in their annual and quarterly filings and defines specific safety enforcement conditions that would trigger the reports. The Byrd amendment, much broader in scope, would mandate new reporting requirements for all publicly traded companies whose workplaces are found to have created unsafe or unhealthy conditions that may impact the company’s financial condition or operating results.

And, so it begins. More politicians will jump on the bandwagon. The coal industry is just now learning to comply with the last round of regulations, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (MINER Act). It’s only a matter of time before Rep. George Miller (D-CA) dusts off the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2007 (S-MINER). Doesn’t a 16,000-case backlog at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission send a clear enough message?

As Massey Energy and MSHA prepare their defense strategies, they should think about the long-term effects on the mining business. Once the investigation is completed, lawsuits will surely follow and Massey Energy may have to pay a hefty fine. What about the costs to the U.S. mining business? The U.S. is steadily regulating itself out of the mining business and the mining business is hastening the effort.

Important questions need to be answered. Were the UBB miners taking unacceptable risks? Did the company know they were taking unacceptable risks? Did MSHA know it? Unfortunately, the only people who know the answers are no longer with us. We owe it to them and their families to determine the cause of the incident, but more importantly the industry needs to find a way to make sure it does not happen again. Maybe this is the time for real change. Similar to that historic eulogy, maybe all of the parties can get together and find a way to improve mine safety rather than enriching the lawyers and escalating the tension.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief
sfiscor@mining-media.com