West Virginians Devastated By Mine Disaster

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The mine explosion in Montcoal, W.Va., on Monday has been called the worst mining accident to happen in the United States in 25 years. The death toll reached 25 people yesterday, and more are still missing. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jessica Lilly of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, who has been covering the disaster.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, another conversation about whether the new health care law benefits women or not. Yesterday we heard from an advocate who says that it does benefit women for reasons one might not expect. Today we hear from a free market advocate who takes a different view that is later.

But first, we go to West Virginia, where rescue workers at the Upper Big Branch coal mine are trying to figure out how to clear out enough poisonous methane gas so that crews can search for four men still missing since an explosion on Monday. Twenty-five people are already known dead, making this the worst mining accident this nation has experienced in a quarter century.

In a few minutes we'll hear from the writer and West Virginia native Homer Hickam, himself a former miner who's told the stories of coal country in several books.

But for an update on how rescue efforts are unfolding, we've called Jessica Lilly who covers the coal mining industry for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. She's in Montcoal, West Virginia, the site of the explosion. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

JESSICA LILLY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask, what's the mood there?

LILLY: Well, today is somewhat a little different from yesterday. Yesterday, there was a lot of, I don't know, sort of not excitement, but just very a lot of movement, things like that. Today, it's kind of calmed down a little bit while everybody's just sitting around and waiting. There is one hole that's been completed in drilling down to reach where they believe the miners are. They've decided to drill a third hole, making a total of five holes. But the three holes are actually going to be closer to where they believe the miners are to try and get the poisonous gas out of there for ventilation.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking it this way, but is this still a rescue effort at this point? Is there any hope that these men are still alive?

LILLY: That's what they're still calling it. However, they are still making it clear that it doesn't seem likely that these miners were able to survive the blast. They describe the blast as being horrendous and tremendous and using words like that. And described tracks within the mine were just twisted like pretzels because of the blast.

But their glimmer of hope comes from after the last big tragedy here in West Virginia, the Sago mine disaster, and after that, the Miner Act was instilled. Because of that, there were refuge chambers implemented, and this mine has refuge chambers installed. So, the glimmer of hope is that these four remaining miners found refuge in these boxes that can give them food, water and oxygen for 36 miners for up to 96 hours.

MARTIN: So, you mentioned that there are new safety regulations passed after that last big disaster in the Sago mine, which in 2006, which killed 12 people. But some people wonder why we still have any incidents of this type at all in this country. Is there a common cause here that has been identified? Is there something that should've been done that hasn't been done?

LILLY: Well, there's I'm sure after they look at the investigation and see if there's anything that can be done and new legislation to implement and try to prevent this, in underground coal mines, there's always a fear and, you know, the possibility of methane gas building up and causing explosions, which they haven't pointed out and said exactly that's what happened, but it seems like this is probably the cause of this instance.

And in looking over the records, there was, as far as explosion, there was in the past, in 2006, of course the explosion caused the 12 miners to die at Sago, and then there was only one other explosion that caused a fatality, and that was in Pennsylvania. And then in 2009 and 2008, there were no explosions to speak of. So, while the danger is there, the explosions aren't necessarily that common in causing fatalities of this magnitude.

MARTIN: And, finally, I wanted to ask, you know, we've talked about the regulation and then there's also the question of enforcement. I mean, it's been reported that the Upper Big Branch mine racked up some 450 safety violations last year alone. Now, that sounds like a big number. Could you put that into context for us? Is that common?

LILLY: I would say not. When we talked to safety officials, they referred to -when a miner is written a citation or is in violation of some regulation, then they are given a time period to fix the problem. And if they don't fix it within a certain time period, then the mine is shut down, and obviously that stops production and prevents money from being made. So if they fix the problem, then they're allowed to continue operations. But more than 400 is a large number.

MARTIN: Jessica Lilly is southern West Virginia bureau chief for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. She covers the coal mining industry, and she was kind enough to join us from Montcoal, West Virginia, which is the site of Monday's accident. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LILLY: Thanks for having me.

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