By Mike Lillis
The Obama administration this week said it will step up its enforcement of safety violations related to ventilation systems in the nation's coal mines.
"These standards are not voluntary," Joseph A. Main, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), said in a statement, "and every mine operator in the country is on notice that MSHA will not tolerate violations of ventilation standards."
The move comes in direct response to recent testimony surrounding April's Upper Big Branch (UBB) disaster in southern West Virginia, which killed 29 miners and all but killed a 30th. The mine owner — Virginia-based Massey Energy — has been under fire over allegations that the company systematically put coal production above worker safety.
Among the most damning charges, a number of Massey miners — both current and former — have said that company managers habitually encouraged workers to tear down line curtains, sheets of plastic designed to direct fresh air from vents into underground work chambers.
“The ventilation system they had didn’t work,” Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a 15-year veteran of the UBB mine, said during a May field hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee in Beckley, W.Va. “With no air moving, it gave me the feeling that area was a ticking time bomb.”
Stewart, who was 300 feet underground when the blast occurred, was one of the few to get out alive.
Jeff Harris, a former Massey miner, told lawmakers a similar tale in April.
"When we got to a section to mine coal, they’d tear down the ventilation curtain," he said. "The air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you. When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain, but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again."
MSHA on Monday also issued a reminder to mine operators that they can't alter their vent plans without the agency's approval.
"Any intentional change to the ventilation system that alters the main air current or any split of the main air current in a manner that could materially affect the safety and health of miners must be approved by MSHA before it is implemented," the agency said.
"This announcement serves to remind all mine operators of their obligation to comply with all federal regulations to ensure the health and safety of their employees," Main said.
"Mine inspectors," he added, "are being instructed to beef up enforcement of ventilation standards."
Massey, which has denied all charges that it fostered a culture that prioritized coal production above worker safety, is under a federal investigation surrounding the UBB blast.