Byrd's Senate speech on mine tragedies

By The West Virginia Record | Jan 26, 2006

On Jan. 24, West Virginia's Congressional delegation and Gov. Joe Manchin met with senior White House officials about mine safety, and on Jan. 23 the U.S. Senate held a hearing on mine safety.

On Jan. 25, Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., updated his Senate colleagues on the efforts to protect coal miners from future tragedies. His message to them: It's time to get tough on mine safety.

Here is Byrd's Jan. 25 speech:

While the Senate was in recess, the State of West Virginia lost fourteen proud sons. On January 2, thirteen hard-working, God-fearing men were simply earning their daily bread at the Sago coal mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, when an explosion killed one, and trapped twelve others, 260 feet below its surface.

For 41 hours these men waited for help. They waited, and prayed, and wrote farewell messages to their loved ones. They waited as their air gave out, and their lungs filled with toxic gases.

Above the ground, we all prayed for a miracle such as we had enjoyed with the nine miners who had been trapped in the mine at Quecreek, Pennsylvania in 2002, and were found alive. This time, there was only one miracle. My wife, Erma and I, like many others in my State of West Virginia, continue to pray for the recovery of the sole survivor of the Sago explosion, Randal McCloy, Jr.

But tragically, there were no miracles for Tom Anderson, Alva Bennett, Jim Bennett, Jerry Groves, George Hamner, Jr., Terry Helms, Jesse Jones, David Lewis, Martin Toler, Jr., Fred Ware, Jackie Weaver, and Marshall Winans. Once again a small, coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and an entire State wept with them.

And then, incredibly, seventeen days later, a mine fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Aracoma Alma Mine #1 in Logan County, West Virginia, trapping two miners underground. In shock and disbelief, the State once again fell to its knees in prayer, and pleaded for a miracle. Forty hours later we learned that two more miners – Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield – had perished.

Another small, coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and again an entire State wept with them. Once again, the national media rushed in to report the disaster to the world. Once again editorials filled newspapers across the country decrying the dangers of mining coal, denouncing the callousness of coal companies, and questioning the commitment of state and federal officials to mine safety.

As a child of the Appalachian coalfields, as the son of a West Virginia coal miner, as a U.S. Senator representing one of the most important coal producing states in the Nation, let me say, I've seen it all before.

First the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next! After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and safety of America's coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next explosion. But, not this time.

Let me say right now that this Senator, and the West Virginia delegation in the House, and in the Senate, will do all that we can to prevent that. There is blame to be assessed in the wake of these tragedies, and plenty of it to go around.

Let us begin with the coal company that operated the Sago Mine, which had been issued 276 safety and health violations in 2004 and 2005. Let me put that into perspective. Could any driver rack up 276 tickets for reckless driving and still keep a license? What if someone had 276 mistakes on a tax return? You can bet that taxpayer would be looking at serious penalties and possibly jail time in a federal prison. But here was a coal company with 276 federal mine safety violations still operating. While some of these were minor transgressions, too many of them were "Significant and Substantial," or, simply put, very serious, and, yet, business went on as usual.

It is quite possible that not one of these specific violations contributed to the explosion at Sago. But, 276 violations are certainly indicative of a company's sloppy attention toward the well-being of its employees.

And what about the agency responsible for making sure that coal operators comply with the spirit and letter of the law – the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Let me be clear that I have nothing but praise for the rescue teams that went into the Sago and Alma Mines. Anybody who has been around a mine explosion knows the dangers that still lurk, not just hours, but days after such an accident. To go into a mine, and to risk one's own life in an effort to save others, as these rescuers do, takes guts. It takes a love for one's fellow man.

Yes, MSHA is filled with good, well-intentioned, and dedicated professionals, but, something is terribly wrong with the leadership at MSHA. Consider that for four straight years, President Bush has proposed to cut the budget for coal safety enforcement below the level enacted by Congress the previous year, and, for four straight years, the Congress has had to struggle to partially restore those cuts. Some 190 coal enforcement personnel have been lost over the last four years through attrition and they have not been replaced. The priorities reflected by the Bush Administration through MSHA's budget certainly are not indicative of a proper concern for the health and safety of miners.

On the day of the Sago disaster, two hours went by before MSHA even knew about the explosion. It took another two hours before MSHA personnel arrived at the scene. It took one and one-half hours before the rescue teams arrived. Another five hours passed before the first team entered the mine. The Mine Act requires that rescue teams be available to mines in the event of an emergency, and yet, it took 10 ½ hours before the first rescue team began its effort at Sago!

A short two weeks later, similar horrors emerged from a second tragedy at the Aracoma Alma Mine, and, again, MSHA did not know of the incident for two and one-half hours. It is obvious that something is very, very wrong at MSHA. The rescue procedures for miners are woefully inadequate.

The Sago Mine had been cited for 276 violations over the past two years, yet, the mine operator never paid a fine larger than $440, and often only paid a minimal $60 fine. Few people realize that even when a fine is assessed, the coal operator can negotiate the fine to a piddling amount. The Congress recognized a long time ago that mine safety and health depends on financial penalties that "make it more economical for an operator to comply" with the law "than it is to pay the penalties assessed and continue to operate while not in compliance." Clearly, with 276 penalties assessed, whatever the amount of the fine, it wasn't enough to convince this company to take a hard look at safety for its employees.

The Sago Mine was a habitual violator, and it was being assessed only the minium penalties allowed by the law. The maximum penalty could be $220,000 or $1 million, but it makes no difference unless MSHA is willing to impose and collect that maximum amount. Habitual violators must fear the consequences of a heavy fine to be paid when assessed. We have to get tough about enforcing the law.

At MSHA complacent attitudes and arrogance rule at the top. At a Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee hearing on Monday, Acting MSHA Secretary David Dye was asked directly about the issue of communications technology: why are the miners trapped underground not able to communicate with the rescue teams, and can rescue teams better locate trapped miners? Dye was asked directly if technology exists to correct these problems and he stated for the record that such technology did not exist. That statement proved to be utterly false. Minutes later, the Subcommittee heard from a former MSHA Secretary, Davitt McAteer, who verified that such communications technology certainly does exist, and he put tracking and communication devices on the table in front of the Subcommittee. What does it say about the people leading this agency when they don't even know about the existence of life-saving technology that ought to be in the mines. Why is the acting Administrator of MSHA, charged with protecting the health and safety of miners so abysmally ignorant of these technologies? The families of these miners and this Congress are owed an explanation.

In this day and age of cell phones, blackberries, and text messaging, it is unacceptable that safe telecommunications technology was not available to the Sago and Alma miners. These weaknesses in mine emergency preparedness are unacceptable. Where is MSHA? What is it waiting for?

Ask the leadership at MSHA. At Sago and Alma, we have seen the disastrous result of complacent attitudes at the top. A quick look at the list of rules approved and scuttled at MSHA in recent years – from regulations governing mine rescue teams, to the use of belt entries for ventilation, to inspection procedures, to emergency breathing equipment, to escape routes and refuges – any one of which might figure into the deaths and disasters at the Sago and Alma Mines – suggests that something is terribly, terribly wrong, and it ought to be fixed.

In 1995, labor and industry jointly proposed a number of initiatives on mine emergency preparedness to improve mine rescue technology and communications. Perhaps one of the most important was to address the dwindling number of mine rescue teams. MSHA has ignored the report and its recommendations. In 2003, the General Accountability Office made a list of recommendations to the Secretary of Labor to help MSHA protect the safety and health of the miners. MSHA ignored the recommendations.

Our nation's coal miners are vital to our national economy. During World War I, coal miners put in long, brutal hours to make sure the Nation had coal to heat our homes, power our factories, and to fuel our battle ships. In World War II, American coal miners provided the energy to replace the oil that was lost with the outbreak of this global conflict. During the oil-boycott induced energy crisis of the 1970s, our Nation once again turned to coal miners to bail the Nation out of trouble, and they did. Coal produces over half of the electricity we use everyday in these United States.

Today, America's coal miners provide the electricity that lights and heats our homes. And they could provide the key to our Nation's future energy security. If we made better use of this abundant natural resource, we could reduce our country's dangerous dependency on foreign oil. We could make ourselves less dependent on the rule of despots, and less of a target for the fanatics, and the terrorists of the Middle East.

God blessed our Nation, especially West Virginia, with an abundance of coal, and He provided us with the good, brave, hard-working miners to dig it. They have never failed our Nation.

But, we, as a nation, are failing them. The test of a great country like ours, is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk, whether it be innocent children who need guarding from hunger and disease or our elderly and sick who cannot afford medication. Those who bravely labor in dangerous occupations to provide our country with critical energy, should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety. That is why MSHA exists. But, MSHA is just a paper tiger without aggressive leadership at the top. If we are a moral nation, and I believe that we should be, moral values must be reflected in government agencies charged with protecting the lives of our citizens. The last thing that we need is ho hum, arrogant attitudes from this Administration and its officials. Such calumny abuses the public trust and results in the kind of loss of life which so grieves families today in Upshur and Logan Counties and all across my home state of West Virginia.

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