Critics Say Mine Safety Comes Second To Profits

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is charged with ensuring that 125,000 U.S. miners work in a safe environment. In the past several months, inspectors repeatedly found problems with ventilation at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Bob Ferriter, an independent expert who trains new miners and mine managers, tells Renee Montagne that people often accuse companies of putting profits before mine safety.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And finding out what went wrong in West Virginia is partly the job of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. That agency is also charged with ensuring that the nation's 125,000 miners work in a safe environment. Federal inspectors check the tunnels, making sure they are stable, fire hazards are minimal and the air breathable. In the last several months, inspectors repeatedly found problems with ventilation at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

We called up Bob Ferriter of the Colorado School of Mines. He's an independent expert who trains new miners and mine managers, and he's reviewed the government safety reports on the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Mr. BOB FERRITER (Colorado School of Mines): Probably the most troubling that I noticed in reviewing the citations: there were several in there that were called unwarrantable failures. And in MSHA's language, unwarrantable means that, from your experience and your education, you should have known not to do something; or the proper way - you would know the proper way to do it, and you ignored it and you went ahead and did it anyway.

MONTAGNE: Why would a mine owner allow conditions in a mine that would be dangerous for miners?

Mr. FERRITER: That's a good question.

MONTAGNE: I mean, is it just a question of it can be very expensive?

Mr. FERRITER: Oh yes, yes, yes. And you always get that, well, if I stopped the machine to fix that problem, I lose two hours of productive time, okay? That means there's so many tons of coal that I won't mine today. And a lot of operators put production ahead of safety, and that's a corporate philosophy. And good operators will stop, fix it. If they lose a few tons of coal for a few hours, you know, no big deal. But other operators, you know, they got to have so many tons per day and they're going to get it one way or another. And if they squeeze the regulations and they put somebody in jeopardy, they're willing to take that risk.

Now, what the case is in this particular operation, I don't know. But I did notice the violations in 2008, they worked approximately 400,000 man hours in that mine and they accumulated 188 violations from MSHA; and then in 2009 they worked about a third more hours but they more than doubled the number of violations. So, that tells me they got kind of sloppy, okay? And to get that many violations in a slight increase in the number of man hours that are worked, you're letting a lot of things go.

MONTAGNE: Makes one wonder why one can't do these jobs with machines, or more machines than are already used. I mean, why is it that at this point in time, 2010, men are going down into these mines and risking their lives?

Mr. FERRITER: Well, you have to remember, it's kind of like a - think of a bulldozer working out on the surface and it's pushing rock and everything out there - it's very rugged use of that machine to put it underground. There is not a machine on the market today that can go for a long time without maintenance. And maintenance, you know, taking care of the breakdowns, that has to be done by humans because there's nobody else to do it.

So, you know, robotics is nice, but until that's advanced a heck of lot and you don't have machines that are breaking down underground and that people have to go into anyway, you might as well have the people there.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. FERRITER: You bet.

MONTAGNE: Bob Ferriter is a senior safety analyst at the Colorado School of Mines. He spoke to us on the phone from Golden, Colorado.

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