RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Shortly before the explosion, people in the mining industry thought they didnt have to rely on miracles. They said they'd improved their safety standards.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: Two weeks ago, a buoyant crowd gathered in Washington. Mining executives were there, along with federal regulators, union officials and industry journalists.
Ellen Smith, of "Mine Safety and Health News," remembers a sense of accomplishment.
Ms. ELLEN SMITH (Editor, "Mine Safety and Health News"): Everyone was recognizing the fact that last year was, in fact, the safest year on record for the U.S. mining industry. I can honestly say that everyone in that room never dreamed that this would happen again. I think we were all thinking that this was behind us, and we would never see such disasters befall this country.
BERKES: And over at George Washington University, former federal mining regulator Celeste Monforton couldn't believe the news out of West Virginia.
Dr. CELESTE MONFORTON (Senior Research Associate, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, GWU School of Public Health and Health Services): Someone sent me an email and they said, this is a Chinese mine disaster in West Virginia - just, you know, I really wonder if we're moving backwards rather than forwards.
BERKES: Monforton helped investigate the Sago mine explosion four years ago, in which 12 miners died, and Smith has chronicled multiple disasters. Both thought mine safety had progressed, especially after the reforms adopted in response to the Sago tragedy. Smith now is looking back for signs of problems at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
Ms. SMITH: Massey, in general, has made great improvements. But I've looked at other Massey operations, and there's just certain things at this mine that stick out.
BERKES: Like repeated citations for failure to abide by federal safety rules.
Ms. SMITH: And they had a lot of them. I mean, they had 48 last year. They've had six unwarrantable failure violations so far this year. They had ventilation violations and obviously, you know - I mean, the mine blew up. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
BERKES: And there's something wrong with a regulatory system that doesn't quickly address repetitive violations, says Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who investigated the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters.
Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Former Federal Mine Safety Chief): When you see a mine that continues to have large numbers of citations and penalties month after month, the curative effect has not taken hold, and that needs to be put in place somehow.
BERKES: What's lacking is vigilance, says Celeste Monforton of George Washington University.
Ms. MONFORTON: We have not invented new ways to kill our mineworkers. It's explosions, it's roof falls, and it's black lung disease. And the ways to prevent those are also well-known.
BERKES: But there is a dismissive attitude, Monforton says, that mining is inherently dangerous, and that mine disasters are part of the historic and cultural fabric of mining communities.
Ms. MONFORTON: And I would pray that we, as a country, would get beyond this belief that it just goes with the job. In my research and in my heart of hearts, I know that these types of disasters are 100 percent preventable. But when we continue to have this attitude that, you know, this is just part of mining, we will never get there.
BERKES: Neither the Mine Safety and Health Administration, nor the National Mining Association, responded to requests for interviews for this story. Massey CEO Don Blankenship told reporters it's not clear yet what really happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine, so it's too early to be specific about failures or reforms.
Still, McAteer worries about the pace of response when causes are known. And he cites, as an example, a key part of the mine safety law that grew out of the Sago mine disaster.
Mr. MCATEER: There was a study released two weeks ago that suggested that 34 of the nation's 415 underground mines had installed completely, a two-way communications system. This is four-plus years after the Miner Act, and we're not where we want to be. Industry themselves have suggested that. How do we go about doing that?
BERKES: McAteer and others suggest the biggest barrier to consistent safety in mining is something that is inherent in the industry the tension between productivity and safety. And sometimes, they note, a productive practice that seems safe encounters negligence or ignorance or an unforeseen set of circumstances that leads to disaster.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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