Making Coal Mines Safer

Clearly, the threat of fines against coal companies guilty of lapses in following state and federal rules has not made mines as safe as they should be. Often payment of fines is delayed, sometimes for years, or avoided altogether through the appeals process.

During the past several months we have seen what appears to us to be evidence state and federal regulators are insisting that miners and their supervisors take more personal responsibility for safety. We think that is an excellent strategy.

In May, a former foreman at a mine near Fairview, W.Va., pleaded guilty to falsifying records of inspections for methane gas. He faces as much as five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

This week, four foremen at a Logan County mine were charged with various mine safety violations. They stem from the investigation of a fire that killed two miners about four years ago.

Not infrequently, mine supervisors charged with criminal violation of safety rules claim they were ordered by management to commit the infractions. In other situations, the claim is that they were pressured, if not ordered directly, to disobey the rules.

State and federal investigators should pursue such claims vigorously. If front-line foremen indeed are being ordered or pressured to violate the law, their superiors should be held accountable, too.

Some coal companies pay enormous fines when safety and health violations are found in their mines. For example, the Massey Energy company has agreed to pay $2.5 million in criminal fines and $1.7 million in civil penalties for the fatal Logan County fire.

Again, however, fines are merely a cost of doing business. The burden of paying for them can be added to the price of coal. Criminal charges against mine supervisors – and, if deserved, their managers – have much more impact.

The two cases outlined above are not the only ones in which federal prosecutors are attempting to hold mine workers and officials personally accountable. Charges have been filed in other cases, too. We believe the campaign is an excellent idea – as an effective way of making coal mines safer.