Montcoal and the Permanence of Risk

What the West Virginia mining tragedy teaches about the perils of industry and government overreach.

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.