On the anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, we asked J. Davitt McAteer for his perspective. McAteer,who headed the Mine Safety and Health Administration from 1993 to 2000, is leading an independent investigation into the disaster, which killed 29 workers.
Has anything changed, from a regulatory standpoint, over the past year?
There hasn’t been any change, either on a statewide basis in West Virginia or in the nation.
The lack of action can be traced to two items: The investigations into the disaster have not been completed . . . and Upper Big Branch was replaced by the [BP Deepwater Horizon] oil spill. The legislative agenda moves from one topic to another topic, and the first topic receives less attention. At the moment, we do not have any impetus to get a legislative package through Congress.
Legislation that sought to stiffen enforcement of mine safety laws failed to pass last year. How much of a difference might the Miner Act of 2010 have made?
I think the Miner Act had the potential to dramatically improve protections for miners underground, notably in that it laid responsibility [for safety] on the mine owner/board of directors as opposed to the current system, which makes the mine foreman the responsible party. As long as we have that disconnect, it’s going to give those who want to disregard the law the ability to do so.
There needs to be a connection between the wash room at the mine and the board room.
Have you seen any change in attitude on the part of the coal companies?
Since the disaster occurred a year ago, there has been a change in the tenor of some companies with regard to mine safety. [Wheeling Jesuit University is] hosting a symposium in Charleston this Thursday and Friday, and two company presidents have volunteered to come. The emphasis here is to say, ‘We need to get together and improve safety on a continuing basis so we’re not just reacting to disasters.’
What’s the status of the independent report, commissioned last April by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, which examines the roles of state and federal regulators in the Upper Big Branch accident?
We hope we’re within weeks of releasing the report.
Anything you’d like to add?
These are fine young men and women who live in the coal fields and work to produce the energy we all use. We call upon them to work in very difficult conditions. Sadly, we have a history of asking them to sacrifice in too great a way. We need to fix that. We need to make sure we can protect these people who turn our lights on every day.