LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Less than five years after an explosion fueled by excess coal dust killed 29 men deep inside a West Virginia underground mine, the nation's coal mines are on pace for an all-time low in work-related deaths.
Federal mine safety officials credit changes they've made since the Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010. They point to their more aggressive use of team inspections at problem sites and other measures, which they say have fostered more responsible behavior below ground.
"I do think we're seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that's for the better," Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, who heads the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, told The Associated Press.
Main took over the agency five months before the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades, the explosion at the Massey Energy-owned Upper Big Branch mine.
Federal investigations have concluded that blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust. The former CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship, was indicted in federal court last month on charges he conspired to violate safety and health standards. Blankenship has pleaded not guilty and faces up to 31 years in prison if convicted.
Main declined to talk about the case against Blankenship because the judge has ordered the parties involved in the case to not speak publicly. The Associated Press and other media are challenging the gag order.
After Upper Big Branch, Main's agency created a list of mines with a pattern of violations and targeted them with "impact" inspections, which mobilize a team of inspectors at one site. The first list named 51 mines, and 42 were coal operations. In the years since, the agency has conducted more than 830 impact inspections, and in the latest review this year, the mines on the problem list had dwindled to 12, half of them coal mines.
With a few days left in the year, there have been 15 coal mining-related deaths. The previous low mark was 18 in 2009.
But the improved record has coincided with a plummet in coal production in Appalachia, leaving far fewer mines operating in a region where many of the worst violators have historically been found. Eight of the coal deaths this year have been in Appalachian mines.
The number of coal mines operating in the U.S. fell to 1,701 last year, from 1,944 in 2010, according to MSHA. Steady coal production in the West and a mining resurgence in the Midwest prevented an even steeper decline.
In West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, mine closings were especially drastic. There were 82 underground mines operating in eastern Kentucky last year, down from 161 in 2010. West Virginia's total of 133 underground coal-producing mines in 2010 fell to 107 last year.
Mining industry representatives agreed that the stepped-up enforcement played a role in the improved safety record, but said the industry has had a hand in the improvements.
"The progressive operators across the industry view MSHA's regulatory requirements as the baseline and they work beyond that," said Bruce Watzman, vice president of regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, an advocacy group. He said some operators are adopting the association's core safety initiative, which has a goal of eliminating deaths and halving the injury rate in five years.
"I think it's the culmination of all of this that drives the improvement we're seeing," Watzman said.
But a former eastern Kentucky coal miner who also worked as an MSHA inspector said even more impact inspections — also called blitzes — are needed to keep mine operators in line.
"It's just unbelievable what you find" during those inspections, said Stanley Sturgill, who inspected mines until retiring in 2009. "You catch them smoking, mining without ventilation. I went in on one and the boss was propped up asleep."
Blitzes give inspectors an opportunity to see a mine as it operates when they aren't around, by preventing mineworkers from warning colleagues to correct violations because an inspector is on the way, said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety lawyer and former top official with MSHA in the late 1990s.
During a blitz, a team of officials descends on a mine for a top-to-bottom inspection, sometimes taking control of communication systems. A series of impact inspections in Kentucky a month after the Upper Big Branch explosion led to the shutdown of six mines until problems were corrected. Two of those mines were sued in federal court for warning miners that inspectors were coming. Federal officials say supervisors at Upper Big Branch were also illegally warning miners underground.
Mine safety officials also stepped up the use of other enforcement tools, including removing miners from a work area until problems are fixed and giving greater support to whistleblower miners who point out problems.
"These are new tools, so to speak, in the way that we're using them," said Main, a former United Mine Workers official. "From time to time there had been limited blitz or impact inspections used, but not as a routine."
California Rep. George Miller, a long-time mine safety advocate on the House Education and Labor Committee, said MSHA needs even stronger tools to investigate and punish mine operators. Miller has sponsored a bill to give the agency subpoena power during an investigation or inspection, increase criminal penalties for safety violations, and punish operators who don't pay fines. The bill is stuck in a House committee.
"These are the weaknesses in the system that allow a person like Blankenship to game the system against the safety of his workers and in his own financial interest, and to be able to do it year after year after year," Miller said.