An uphill battle for an underground issue
An uphill battle for an underground issue
After another tragic coal mine explosion, the aggregates industry prepares for increased scrutiny despite its own increased safety record.
By Tina Grady Barbaccia, News and Digital Editor
Following the latest coal mine tragedy in West Virginia in early April, the aggregates industry is preparing for increased scrutiny and the potential Congressional and regulatory fallout that may result from this disaster.
Twenty-nine people are dead after an explosion at the Massey Energy Co. Upper Big Branch coal mine in Whitesville, W.Va., Don Blankenship, the company’s chairman and CEO, confirms. These are updated numbers from Blankenship’s original confirmation of seven people dead and 19 unaccounted for, and a secondary report that 25 were dead and four were still missing.
Massey Energy Co., says its focus right now is attending to the families to ensure they have the support they need. “We mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy,” Blankenship said in a written statement from the company. “I personally met with many of the families…and share their grief at this very painful time. I want to offer my condolences to the miners’ families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch. And I want to thank the rescue teams and the Massey members who continue to work hard on behalf of our miners and their families.
“We continue to work diligently with state and federal authorities to try to determine the cause of this tragic explosion as quickly as possible,” Blankenship said.
Immediately following the incident, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis issued a statement through the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in which she said: “My heartfelt condolences go out to the families, co-workers, and communities that are mourning the loss of lives at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville, W.Va. My thoughts and prayers are with them.” Solis pledged “that their deaths will not be in vain,” that MSHA “will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”
The coal industry is certainly reeling from this latest incident, and it’s also possible that it will affect the aggregates industry. The entire mining industry has struggled with its public image, but after the tragic Sago coal mine explosion and Aracoma Coal Alma No.1 coal mine incident, both in 2006, and the Utah and Indiana coal mine incidents in 2007, legislation and federal regulations have been rampant and mining has been brought more into the public eye. And such could be the case following this tragedy.
The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) is preparing for this. NSSGA spokeswoman Peggy Disney told Aggregates Manager, and is telling other media agencies, that because the accident didn’t occur in the aggregates production industry, the organization doesn’t feel it is productive to speculate on what Congress or the regulatory agencies might or might not do. However, NSSGA senior staffers have met in anticipation of what regulatory issues may arise from the incident.
NSSGA says it is monitoring statements by public officials, members of Congress, members of the administration, and others to see where they’re headed. The organization says it already has lobbyists and its members on Capitol Hill re-educating key staff and members on the differences between aggregates production and coal mining. NSSGA says it’s aware that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education & Labor committee, has sent two committee investigators to the Big Branch scene to investigate. In addition to the organization’s ongoing education efforts, NSSGA says it will look at fixes, such as aggregates exemption, to any potential new mining legislation or regulations.
Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-W.Va.), in whose district the mine site is, said he’s ready to write new mining laws, if necessary, according to NSSGA. At Aggregates Manager press time in mid-April, NSSGA said extensive hearings are expected soon.
Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released in early January indicated that mine fatalities in 2009 fell to an all-time low for the second straight year. According to Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, a key factor contributing to the record low number of deaths includes enforcement of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (which succeeded the 1969 Mine Act) and continued implementation of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, enacted by Congress in 2006.
In 2009, MSHA assessed 173,000 civil penalties for violations of mine safety and health legal requirements. The dollar amount of assessed penalties totaled $140.7 million in 2009. Twenty-five “flagrant violations” were assessed at a total of $3.4 million. That means $137.3 million were not “flagrant violations.”
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