Regulators! Mount up!

When something happens like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, I as someone who has both done some reporting in the area and as someone who keeps an eye on government in an amateur capacity can’t help but start trying to weed out where the regulation and enforcement went right or wrong.

I come at this as someone who thinks the government should have an awesome regulatory and enforcement power over corporations. And, when it comes to this, the worst mine disaster in this country since 1984, I think that position is rather justified by it.

Regarding Upper Big Branch: I would use the term “accident” rather loosely.

The mine in Raleigh County, near Beckley, W.Va., was cited for 458 safety violations last year, with 50 of them listed as unwarrantable failures to comply—citations reserved under federal mining regulations for instances of willful or gross negligence.

Nationwide, an average of 2 percent of safety violations are unwarrantable failures. Slightly more than 10 percent of Upper Big Branch mine’s violations last year were unwarrantable failures.

At the time of Monday’s explosion, Upper Big Branch mine was facing more than $150,000 in fines for pending safety violations, after routine scheduled inspections resulted in more than 100 citations three times in a 12-month period.

“Unwarrantable failure” violations are serious. A mine can be fined a maximum of $220,000 for a single violation. This mine has been cited for coal dust—a doubly fatal issue in that it causes black lung and in that it can cause explosions—and for poor inspection regimen, and for ventilation issues and a poor escape plan. Methane gas buildup has been a chronic issue for the mine:

Internal MSHA records made available to the Post-Gazette Monday night also indicated that in 2006, Upper Big Branch released more than 1 million cubic feet of of flammable methane gas in a 24-hour period. Under federal safety regulations, that amount of methane discharge would have required a federal safety inspection for methane levels once every five days.

This mine had 57 violations last month, and Performance Coal Company—a subsidiary of Massey Energy—was fighting many of the steepest fines or refusing to pay them.

There has been an outcry in industry regarding OSHA’s “new sheriff in town” stance of late. But there is a truth to be eked out from this disaster and, indeed, in any time there are fatalities in industry. Federal regulations and enforcement powers don’t exist just to make some guy with a clipboard feel like he’s got a big wiener. Companies that flout federal regulations end up killing and maiming people. Pure profit motive provides no incentive to install a safety rail, or to properly ventilate, or to require guards and safety belts and lock-outs, so government has to create such an incentive. Something like Upper Big Branch, something like Sago, something like any of these should be an icy splash of water to every American’s face: Federal regulations and enforcement powers exist for a reason.

I say this gives agencies such as OSHA and MSHA license to step it up even another notch or four. Regulators! Mount up! (Sure, we’ll steal from Warren G. We’ll steal from anyone…)

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