Coal miners deserve protection under the law

Del. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, summed up the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s recent rule changes best when he told The Inter-Mountain recently that, “We can pass all of the laws we want, but we have to enforce them. In these mining disasters, there always seems to be multiple victims. That’s not to say one death doesn’t make a difference. One death is one death too many. This is something that is long overdue for these companies that are repeat offenders.”

We couldn’t agree more as the state and coal industry solemnly look back at the Sago Mine disaster.

Seven years ago this month, a dozen West Virginia coal miners perished in the worst Mountain State mining disaster since the 1968 Farmington Mine explosion that killed 78 workers.

History has shown us all that coal mining always has been an extremely dangerous, yet lucrative, profession. Past experiences aside, in the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the mining industry, thereby decreasing the risk to life and limb. All the high-tech gadgets and safety monitors in the world, though, still can not fill the divide created by old-fashioned human error, or in many cases, blatant disregard for proper safety protocols.

It is well past time for MSHA to have stepped in to take action. Far too many lives have been lost, too many West Virginia families have been left without a father, son or brother, because of lack of action on not just a state level but a federal level as well. This inaction is unacceptable.

MSHA’s new rulings, including establishing criteria and procedures that the administration will use to identify mines with a pattern of significant and substantial violations and reinforcing mine operators’ responsibility for compliance with safety and health standards is a step in the right direction.

More, though, is needed, and we agree with Hamilton that all the laws in the world will not have a significant impact unless they are enforced.

That’s where our state’s national Congressional delegation comes into play.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., says he plans on reintroducing the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act this session. That bill calls for the strengthening of protection laws for those who report safety concerns and will increase MSHA’s oversight and accountability, while giving the agency tougher enforcement tools.

This too, will be another instrument in MSHA’s arsenal that will ultimately lead to a safer coal industry and hedge the already great loss of life in that profession.

Coal miners have long since been the backbone of this country, helping to keep the lights burning at night and helping to fulfill the energy needs of our still-growing society.

The least we all owe our dedicated and selfless coal miners is protection from unsafe working condition. That, and a big thank-you for a job well done.