The mine explosion in West Virginia and the tragic loss of life have shocked those who pay close attention to coal mine safety. Some had recently marked a mine safety milestone: the nation's safest year ever.
Two weeks ago, a buoyant crowd, including mining executives, federal regulators, union officials and industry journalists, gathered in Washington, D.C.
"Everyone was recognizing the fact that last year was in fact the safest year on record for the U.S. mining industry," said Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News. "I can honestly say that everyone in that room never dreamed that this would happen again. We were all thinking that this was behind us and we would never see such disasters befall this country."
At George Washington University, former federal mining regulator Celeste Monforton couldn't believe the news out of West Virginia.
"Someone sent me an e-mail, and it said, 'This is a Chinese mine disaster in West Virginia,' " she said. "I really wonder if we're moving backwards rather than forwards."
Monforton, now an assistant research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at GWU, helped investigate the Sago mine explosion four years ago in which 12 miners died. Smith, the editor, 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.
"Massey in general has made great improvements," Smith said. "But I've looked at other Massey operations, and there's just certain things at this mine that stick out."
Massey has received repeated citations for failure to abide by federal safety rules. Last year, it had 48. This year, the company had six unwarrantable failure violations. It has also had ventilation violations.
"Something was terribly, terribly wrong," Smith said.
There's something wrong with a regulatory system that doesn't quickly address repetitive violations, said Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who investigated the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters.
"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," McAteer said.
Monforton said what's lacking is vigilance.
"We have not invented new ways to kill our mineworkers," she said. "It's explosions and it's roof falls and it's black lung disease. And the ways to prevent those are also well-known."
There is, however, a dismissive attitude that mining is inherently dangerous, Monforton says, and that mine disasters are part of the historical and cultural fabric of mining communities.
"I would pray that we as a country would get beyond this belief that it just goes with the job," she said. "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 this is just part of mining, we will never get there."
An Inherent Tension
Neither the Mine Safety and Health Administration nor the National Mining Association nor Massey Energy 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 says he worries about the pace of response when causes are known. He cites as an example a key part of the mine safety law that grew out of the Sago mine disaster.
"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," he said. "This is four-plus years after the Miner Act, and we're not where we want to be."
McAteer and others suggest that the biggest barrier to consistent safety in mining is something that is inherent in the industry — the tension between productivity and safety. Sometimes, they note, a productive practice that seems safe encounters negligence or ignorance or an unforeseen set of circumstances that leads to disaster.