Montcoal and the Permanence of Risk

The disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Montcoal, West Virginia, last week was horrifying, underscoring the dangers that miners and their families live with every day. There will be an investigation to determine what caused the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, as there should be. As is the case with any disaster, investigators will hope to learn what went wrong and how to prevent the same thing from happening again. Yet, whatever we learn, mining in general, and coal mining in particular, will always be a dangerous profession.

Over 11,000 coal miners have lost their lives in the United States since 1900, the vast majority as the result of explosions and fires. As recently as fifty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to lose more than a hundred coal miners per year in accidents. Thanks to increased safety measures, regulatory oversight and advances in technology, we don’t see those kind of numbers any longer. Coal mining is much safer today than it was in 1950, but it will never be risk free.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration publishes what it calls “fatalgrams” whenever the agency investigates a mining accident involving a loss of life. In 2009, MSHA issued eighteen fatalgrams, thirty in 2008 and thirty one in 2007. These fatalities followed passage of the Miner Act of 2006, which was crafted to improve mine safety and was effective in doing so. The impetus for the Miner Act was the fact that four coal mine explosions and fires took the lives of twenty miners in 2006, almost half of the forty seven coal mining fatalities that occurred in that year. Following passage of the Miner Act, no fires or explosions had killed a single coal miner for over three years – until the Big Branch disaster.

Unfortunately, the truism that “accidents happen” is more applicable to some industries than others. Risk is a part of life and it’s a large part of certain jobs. In some professions, it’s simply impossible to anticipate every single thing that might go wrong, to create work practices that will eliminate any chance of something going wrong, or to ensure that every person engaged in a dangerous job follows those safe work practices that have been established. I speak with the voice of experience because, for ten years of my youthful work life, I was employed in just such a profession.

Ask the average person what “stack testing” is and you’ll get a blank stare in return. Stack testers climb up the side of tall smokestacks at power plants, oil refineries and other industrial concerns, haul up hundreds of pounds worth of equipment onto platforms and use that equipment to measure the pollutants coming out of the stacks. It’s another form of a green job I guess, because the reason that stack testing exists is to fulfill EPA requirements. As you might imagine, a job that involves working at great heights in any sort of weather, often for twelve or more hours at a crack, can be dangerous. Not, I’ll warrant, as dangerous as coal mining, but dangerous enough.

As is the case with any dangerous profession, there are work practices, safety gear and training designed to make stack testing safe. Even so, stack testers sometimes die. Accidents still happen: A brick stack collapses – somebody dies. A ladder is slippery – somebody dies. Scalding steam rushes from a burst pipe next to a platform – somebody dies. Sometimes you can figure out what went wrong and prevent an accident in the future. Sometimes you can’t. Almost twenty years ago a friend and co-worker plunged ninety feet to his death off a stack platform. Dave Solace was a personable, intelligent and careful young man, and he died for reasons that no one has ever figured out. I had my share of close calls (events I can still recall vividly) as did most everyone I worked with. Anyone who works or has worked in a job that includes an element of risk knows what it’s like. Sometimes you’re a little too comfortable and let your guard down. Sometime the guy working alongside you does something really stupid that puts everyone at risk. Sometimes it’s just fate, because you can’t plan for every bad thing that might someday occur.

In that context, it will be interesting to see how the Obama administration reacts to the Big Branch disaster. Ideally, the president would recognize that nobody this side of God can completely eliminate risk in professions that are inherently dangerous. Ideally, he would let MSHA, the industry and the coal-miners figure out what went wrong and how best to address the root cause, assuming one is found. They are the professionals, after all, and are in the best position to offer to both conduct an investigation and propose further safeguards.

However, the president’s announcement that the White House will conduct its own investigation is both predictable and symbolic of this administration’s tendency toward regulatory overreach. Obama and his advisors not only believe that they can eliminate risk, they are sure that it’s their personal duty to do so. What was the healthcare bill, if not an exercise is risk avoidance at the grandest scale? A few million Americans (the exact number of millions always seemed to be a moving target) were uninsured and therefore at risk of running up medical bills they could not pay. It was government’s job, according to the President, to eliminate this risk once and for all, the expense be damned. The same can be said for Obama’s EPA, which is busy implementing new regulations and conducting new studies at a pace that makes one’s head spin. Why? Primarily because they believe that doing so will save lives. No matter that our air and water are cleaner they have ever been since the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed forty years ago. No matter that life expectancies in America are longer than ever. For this administration, no risk, no matter how tiny it is and how expensive it may be to address, can ever be ignored.

It’s seems possible, even probable, that Obama will over-react to the Big Branch disaster, because when it comes to risk issues, this administration over-reacts to just about everything. Still, the degree to which the president Obama over-reacts won’t matter all that much. Mining will go on and, as is the case in so many other inherently dangerous industries, accidents will still happen. The larger theme here is that this is a president who would remove every bit of risk from everyone’s life. But as most of us learned a long time ago, and as the country is painfully relearning in the Obama era, without risk there’s no reward.

  • Real Weight
  • bubba4

    What's the worry…the mine and the company running it has been sited for several safety violations and problems in the past. That didn't stop the disaster.

    Mines are dangerous. They get more dangerous when people that run them screw up.

  • Stan Bailes

    Shame on you. Don't compare your summer job (that Daddy probably got for you) to the risk that these 29 miners took everyday of their lives to take care of their families. They didn't have the option of walking away like you did (If you actually did the job). Their families needed the money.

    Conservatism does not require that you put your employees at risk by fighting every regulation and every citation for violation of those regulations by delaying their implementation by pushing them into the court system–Greed requires that; the attempt to save a few bucks.

    How dare you twist this tragedy for 29 families and for the country into a self-serving, self-promoting article; attempting psuedo-logic by connecting the deaths of these miners to the Obama Healthcare legislation–and all of this before the investigation of this tragedy has even begun.

    You sir, are a fool.

    • Former colleague

      This was not a summer job handed to Mr. Trzupek. It was a chosen career. Simmer down cowboy.

    • coyote3

      But to do any less would subject the mine management to liability from their shareholders. On the otherhand, I worked in the oil industry for a while, just prior to OSHA. The regulations, in many cases, were actually more strict than those eventually imposed by OSHA, because, the oil company did not want their refinery to blow up or burn down. The law even recognizes these principles. Generally, you are not required to anticipate "every" risk, and react to it. The cost benefit analysis has a bad name, but you are not required to spend inordinate amounts of money to guard against a risk that may only create a real danger, for a small number of people, a small percentage of the time. It does no good to regulate an industry to the point where the industry just gives up, and moves to more friendly environment, and there are no jobs, inherently dangerous, or otherwise. This investigation may reveal that violations of existing regulations "actually caused" this incident, but that remains to be seen.

  • poptoy

    Well said Stan. Keep in mind that U.S. Government has set safety standards for the mines. The Govt. should enforce these standards and not just issue citations. I worked in the offshore drilling industry for over 20 years and when the Govt. found a major violation we were shut down until it was fixed. Trust me they fixed it quick so not to loose money. We were allowed to do nothing until we were in compliance. This should apply that to the coal industry. The best part about it was everybody was paid while the work was going on. GOD bless the Miners. GOD bless you and yours.

  • badaboo

    Rich , you are a truly PATHETIC person . Oh well that's risk huh ? THAT MINE , had a long ongoing list of safety violations , and the "industry watchdogs " waived about 70% of the fines that should have been imposed . Several miners expressed apprehension aout going in to that mine , due to concerns about poor ventilation of volatile gases . BUT what don they know , huh Rich , you know better , you worked "a risky job " , so now you'll pontificate on how these miners should expect this sort of tragedy as , just part of life , "accidents happen " , you say , no doubt preparing more of you partisan blather and "spin " , USING this tragedy as another instrument to attack Obama , more red-meat for "the clamoring like-minded sycophants " . __Mr. Bailes immediately states AND NAILS YOU , for what is so sickeningly obvious about your miindset and that of whomever allowed your callous and arrogant statement to be published , because it reflects the opinion of the blog-masters here .__ My suggestion to you …GO TO WEST VIRGINIA , and tell those people what you have just expectorated here on this blog .

    • coyote3

      Well, is that any different than using this tragedy to further demonize "big" business?

      The opponents of regulations, even existing ones, certainly have an agenda. No doubt. But it is likewise true that the proponents have one too. Regulations which have tremendous costs, certainly affect the bottom line. Why is this any more sickening than taking the property of another without any compensation, much less just compensation? Coal mining has always been recognized as an inherently dangerous activity in most states. The law even recognizes things like this, but also recognizes that the benefit from the activity outweighs the considerable risk.

      You might say this is a poor v. rich issue. Even if it is, I have known a lot of poor people in my time, and I have known some who could be considered rich. In my experience the poor were not more or less moral or virtuous than the rich.

  • Jerome Powell

    These comments may all be true, but it is also true that some jobs are inherently more dangerous than others.

  • Sam Deakins

    A fellow I know worked on strip mining operations for years. He was obliged to wear a respirator because of the rock dust in the air during operations. This was a health and safety requirement that his company and federal law mandated. He more often than not disregarded this health and safety regulation because the mask was bothersome. Ten years ago he came down with a lung disease related to his non-compliance. For the past decade he has set at home drawing a check for his own negligence. Not to disparage those who have lost their lives but, sometimes folks just don't follow the "rules" and bad things happen.

    • badaboo

      Yea , and this "bad thing happened " because the EMPLOYER skirted the rules . "Not to disparage " you say ?

      But you just did .

      • coyote3

        No evidence that employer, in the above post, "skirted" the rules. Don't know that they didn't, but there is no proof that they did. There is no evidence, about, what discipline, if any, was undertaken for the employees reported noncompliance. So, we don't know, and neither do you. It is interesting though, first it is "violating" the rules, then it is "skirting" the rules. These rules are either broken, or they are not. If they are not broken, then there is no violation.

        • badaboo

          that's called an" argument from ignorance" coyote3 . And yes , I DO know they were in violation . about 1500 of them , and wiggled their way out of 70 % of them . And yes rules ARE broken , problem is they were "appealed " , so if a rule WAS broken , how did it get appealed ? Can ya figure that one out coyote 3 , or are you rally that naive ?

  • TommyBoy

    2009 was a record year for mine safety in that it had the fewest fatalities on record at 35. For Stan to say that conservatism is somehow at fault (he sounds a little bit too much like Keith Olbermann doesn't he?) for the loss of 29 miners is ridiculous. The headlong rush to defend Obama makes me think a troll is about. Let the MHSA do its job, without the interference of political grandstanding from Washington, and investigate the disaster. In the meantime, how about a prayer for the families of those miners who lost their lives in what will always be a very dangerous business.

  • tanstaafl jw

    Entering the job market involves choosing the job that you want. However, in the rural areas of West Virginia, workers face the choice of feeding their families or risking their lives daily in a coal mine. There is no other work in the area. Yes, coal mining is dangerous, but my sympathy is with the workers and their families, not with the mine's owner(s).

    I have one other question. I have worked at some risky jobs as well. Why aren't positions where workers risk their lives and health better compensated?

    • Bob

      Sure the miners are forced to choose between risking their lives and feeding their families, but is the solution to regulate the mines, in an attempt to eradicate all risk, to the point where operation of the mine is so unprofitable that they must shut it down? How will the miners feed their families when the only employer leaves?

      • red

        So- if they knew the mines were risky and didn't want to work in them, they could have left the area, correct? The workers face the choice of not feeding their families or risking death OR leaving. I think the deaths are tragic and horrible and the owners in this case seem to have a LOT of liability, but why does nobody ever bring up the option of leaving?

        • coyote3

          I know some people who moved to the Repubic of Tejas from this area. As far as leaving, they have been doing it for a long, long time. They call it, "coal mines, moonshine, or git on down the line." They did say that the wages were pretty good, but the job was always a big risk regardless of what was done.

    • red

      I'd guess they're not better compensated because people will work for the wages offered. Am I missing something?

      • tanstaafl jw

        Sorry, red. I tried to reply to you, but it was not posted. Don't know why.

  • Bill Ford

    The Massey mine disaster, not sure about the mine insurance, but I do know a few things about the situation.

    First, this should never have happened. Federal mine inspectors were there the day it happened, and probably every other day too. Methane monitors check for gases at all times. I would be willing to bet the ignition occurred in a sealed area of the mine.

  • Bill Ford

    The Sago, Darby, and now Montcoal mines have all had explosions that resulted in fatalities due to methane buildup in old works that were sealed. True, they had all been sighted by the feds for ventilation problems, but none of the explosions occurred in the area or as a result of the failures to comply.

    This law is a bad law and has caused many deaths.

    Another aside to this tragic story is that Massey applied for a permit to drill two more ventilation portals months ago and their permit has been held up by the EPA and not issued. Of course once this disaster occurred drilling began and was completed in two days. Now we will have more inspectors, more difficult environmental regs, and a group of lawmakers writing rules that don't make common sense, although admittedly ventilation in deep mines that are well below the surface of the earth is a difficult engineering problem to tackle.

  • Bill Ford

    On the other hand, all this new law which is extremely expensive to comply with has driven all but the most financially strong companies out of business. The regs as usual have a one size fits all policy and enforce the same law on all mines whether there is methane in the seam or not. Many hill seams, above drainage, have virtually no methane because the gases have naturally vented over the last millenium. At any rate this will all serve the bigger government bigger business types and force coal prices, i.e. electric prices way higher because Appalachian coal is being forced out of the market.

    Coal will continue to burn but it will be high sulfur coal which is abundant in Illinois Basin and Powder River basin coal which is also abundant. The recipients of the bounty from this shift in productions will be Obama's home state, and Warren Buffett who recently purchased the Burlington Northern Railroad via some strong political connections. This is all unintended consequences of the save our earth people, Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the like, with the power brokers in Washington using them to gain untold riches.

    I could go on, but you get my drift.

    • badaboo

      Yea , I get your drift Bill …you don't know what you're talking about /. I could go on , but I 'm already sick to my stomach from listening to another political shill for big buisiness….. know what I mean ?

  • trickyblain

    On one hand, Trzupek tells us that "regulations" have been effective at enhancing safety over the years. On the other, he tells us, essentially, that "people die, nothing to see here, move on. We have enough regulations." He then blasts Obama's EPA for trying to "save lives" and tells us there's so many regulations that it makes his head spin.

    What makes my head spin is the boundless extent of Trzupek's lack of integrity and respect. Here's a man who makes a living telling business owners the most effective ways to cut corners — to substitute worker and public safety for a few bucks on the company's bottom line. And we're supposed to find his take on mine safety credible? Because he once had a job climbing stacks? Really?

    For a better take, FPM should publish a counterpoint to Trzupek's 1890's-era rationalization. Say, from one of the wives, parents or children of one of the 29 miners. I think it's a good guess that they won't share Trzupek's dismissal that "accidents happen."

    • Jim C.

      It was a disgusting, risible article. Trzupek can hang his head in shame.

      What a scumbag.

  • badaboo

    DITTO , according to Trzupek , big buisiness should be spared complying with "expensive safety regulations " …like OSHA parameters , and "another poster here states "there are inherently dangerous jobs " , so we should continue NOT to ensure the best we can of safety proceedures , for the sake of "buisiness expense " , thereby accepting ther inevitable loss of life , as THE COST OF DOING BUISINESS !
    I wonder if it were Trzupek's son , or brother , or Dad down in those minds , would he be so cavalier in his attitudes .
    Trzupeks article here simply diminishes his credibility to look at anything objectively , even further .