May 1, 2010
Preventing further tragedies
By Therese Dunphy
In early April, my family and I were driving home from a spring break trip to Orlando. It was a long drive along Interstate 77, and while I could tell you a lot about pavement conditions, congestion points, toll roads, and the travails of traveling 20 hours with five males, I’d rather share the most poignant moment of the journey.
As traffic ground to a halt in West Virginia, I consulted my favorite map App and found an alternate route. We drove through back roads and small towns. In the last small town before getting back onto the interstate, we saw a picturesque country church with a tall white steeple. It was West Virginia at its bucolic best. A few dozen yards from the church steps stood a hand-painted sign with the names of people who had lost their lives in the town’s mine.
I made the kids quiet down for a few minutes and reflect on what the dozen names on that sign meant to such a small community and so many families. Every name represented a husband, father, brother, wife, mother, or sister. The impact of unsafe practices is felt well beyond the lives lost.
Just a few days later, before our bags were even fully unpacked and the refrigerator was restocked, I saw the first news report about the explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch coal mine. I watched throughout the evening as miners were first listed as missing and later found to be dead. I kept thinking that it was going to take a really big sign to list the names of miners lost that day. Way too big.
But like that quiet moment in a minivan full of kids, solemn silence was quickly broken by loud voices, and the blame game began. An ABC news headline said the coal mining industry was ducking punishment by clogging the appeals system. Union leaders claimed companies were subverting safety. A former Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) leader said that contested violations allowed unsafe behaviors to continue until resolved. Around the same time, the Department of Labor released its report on training of MSHA inspectors and admitted that a large portion of inspectors had not been trained in a timely and adequate manner.
President Obama’s comments on the accident leave little doubt that mines, particularly those with “troubling safety records,” will be under the spotlight. But, his action plan does not end there. “We can’t just hold mining companies accountable — we need to hold Washington accountable,” he said. “And that’s why I want to review how our Mine Safety and Health Administration operates.” It, too, will be held accountable.
The ramifications of April 5’s tragedy are likely to be felt far and wide. To the industry’s credit, aggregate companies have made tremendous strides in their safety records over the last few years. It’s okay to proudly proclaim that success. At the same time, however, take a quiet moment and remember why that success is so important. It’s not just about regulations and fines. It’s also about families and communities.