MADISON – Rapid expansion of coal mining could reverse West Virginia's record of progress in safety, according to attorney Tim Conaway of Madison.
"I am kind of afraid we are entering into an era where it is going to be more dangerous," Conaway said after 12 miners died in a Jan. 3 explosion at an International Coal mine at Tallmansville, in Upshur County.
Conaway said a drop in coal mine deaths has created an illusion of safety. He said death rates fell partly because employment in underground mines fell.
Conaway, who represents injured miners, said the legislature should tighten laws on mining permits and require more experience for supervisors.
"With the price of coal going up, you have owners getting in who lack expertise," said Conaway, who represents injured miners.
Nationwide, the numbers of coal mines and coal miners have gone up the last two years, after decades of decline.
"The workers that are recruited are younger," Conaway said. "Younger supervisors take over with very little experience. And the union is basically gone."
"Guys brought up in the union tradition say, I won't work non-union. They stay out of the industry," he said.
Conaway's firm popped up on an Internet search for West Virginia mine accidents. He said he inspected mines and taught safety for the Bureau of Mines before going to law school.
"It's a pretty complex business," he said. "You've got complicated machinery in close quarters."
The last time a West Virginia explosion shocked the nation, the U.S. Congress passed a powerful law that shrank the death rate in the nation's mines.
In 1969, congress enacted legislation that President Richard Nixon proposed after an explosion killed 78 miners at Farmington, near Fairmont in Marion County.
The mine exploded Nov. 20, 1968. Twenty-one men escaped. Recovery efforts yielded remains of 59 victims over 10 years. Nineteen still lie buried there.
Nixon declared in a message to congress that, "Catastrophes in the coal mines are not inevitable. They can be prevented, and they must be prevented."
The Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 recognized health and safety rights of miners. It expanded the federal role in inspections and set tightened standards.
It worked so well that in 35 years, deaths at U.S. coal mines plunged from 203 to 28.
In West Virginia it worked so well that from 1972 to 1986, no single accident killed more than five miners.
From 1997 to 2002, as if by magic, not a single accident in West Virginia killed two miners. If a roof caved in on five miners, four would survive.
The magic run ended in 2003, when an explosion killed three employees of a drilling contractor at a mine near Cameron, in Marshall County.
Later that year, two miners died in Boone County when a rock truck ran over their van.
Three accidents with single fatalities raised the death toll for 2003 to eight.
In 2004, a dozen accidents took a dozen lives.
Last year, the West Virginia death toll dropped to three.
In the three years before the Tallmansville explosion, West Virginia coal mine accidents killed 23. By that yardstick, the blast delivered about 18 months of death in an instant.
"If this was a methane explosion it should not have happened, not if it was ventilated at all," Conaway said.
Investigators have not established the cause. No one ever figured out what triggered the Farmington blast of 1968.
Conaway said most serious injuries and deaths occur in roof falls, hauling crashes and electrical accidents.
"What we see are accidents that arise out of human error and conditions that are long standing and are known by the companies to exist," he said.
He said miners in charge of electrical equipment can lock a plug and keep the key so no one can plug anything else in.
"But those things aren't done," he said.
"You've got trains running both ways on a track. You've got communication systems that don't work.
"You've got mines opening that should not be permitted to open. I don't think the permitting process is careful enough."
Conaway said that companies work seams above and below former mines that worked other seams.
"Is this strata so cracked from previous mining on other layers that the roof won't hold?" he asked.
Companies blast the tops off mountains for surface mining, and then dig 100 feet down to work seams below, Conaway said.
When he first worked in mines, no one would have believed that the United Mine Workers of America would not represent most West Virginia miners.
"On the Coal River, I don't think you have a single union mine," Conaway said.
"The union safety committeeman went through with the inspector. He had a little more courage to call it to management's attention or even refuse to work."