Saturday, April 10, 2010

Montcoal, West Virginia: A Major Mining Accident and Weak Government Regulation

Last week there was a mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, and 29 miners were killed. The mine is owned by Massey Energy (which is headquartered in Richmond), and Massey has come in for major criticism for its safety record in the past week.

The issue of government regulation of mines has now moved to the fore, and here's what I learned from a NYT article this morning (here) by Michael Cooper, Gardiner Harris and Eric Lipton:
  1. The mining industry is regulated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor. The current head of the DOL is Hilda Solis; I've heard of Solis before but I'm not sure she's been in the news since Obama became President.
  2. The MSHA was created in 1977 after a mine accident in Kentucky. Its enforcement powers are quite weak (this has been a major theme of the news stories), notwithstanding some tweaks to the law after the 2006 mining accidents.
  3. The amounts of MSHA fines are very small (this reminds me of the FCC and its fines for obscenity), and it does not have subpoena power. Also, Massey and other mining companies have challenged many of the fines and thereby successfully delayed enforcement: "Of the $123.4 million in major fines levied against the industry by the agency since 2005, only 8 percent has been collected — $10.2 million — partly because mine owners began challenging fines more routinely when the agency threatened to increase enforcement for repeat offenders."

425. What percentage of US coal mining occurs in West Virginia?

426. How did Massey prevent the Upper Big Branch mine from becoming unionized? Have unions attempted to establish a presence there? I have to think that the poor safety record stems in part from the lack of a union (which would lead to no coordinated action against the company).

427. Does our house run on coal power? If so, where is Dominion Virginia getting the power?

428. I read that Massey is the country's fourth biggest producer of coal. What are the three larger companies?

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