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Editorial: Alpha makes progress on mine safety commitment

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 10:05 PM

There is no way to erase the devastation from the death of 29 miners in a tragedy that investigators say could have been avoided. That includes not only the loss of those lives, but also the pain and suffering felt by their families, friends and coworkers.

The best we can hope for is that their deaths will not be in vain, that their sacrifice will not have been forgotten with no or little effort to learn from what happened to them and work to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

From that perspective, some good has emanated from the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County in April 2010. Unfortunately, there is still more to be done.

One of the positive developments occurred last week, when Alpha Natural Resources opened its Running Right Leadership Academy, a $23 million training complex in Boone County dedicated to teaching miners how to avoid injury and death in any disaster in one of the most dangerous work environments. Alpha Natural Resources describes it as the only facility of its kind in the world -- a place where crises can be created in a controlled environment so that miners can receive realistic preparation for the dangers they may face.

Alpha was not the owner of the Big Branch Mine; that was Massey Energy Co., which had a miserable safety record at many of its mines, including Upper Big Branch. But Alpha purchased Massey operations a year after the disaster, and as part of a settlement with the federal government committed itself to building the training center. That settlement freed Alpha from criminal prosecution related to the Upper Big Branch disaster, although the government has prosecuted some former Massey employees and is continuing its investigation of others.

Alpha also said it would change the culture at the former Massey mines to one of eliminating safety hazards from one of covering up the safety violations, as was the case under Massey. Federal mine safety officials say they have noticed a difference, and mine inspection records support that statement. They show that from 2007 through 2009, 14 Massey mines were listed as potential pattern violators, a category assigned to mines singled out for higher scrutiny because of repeated safety problems. In 2010, four Massey mines made the list, but in 2011, only one Massey operation was on it. Last year, under a full year of Alpha ownership, none fell into that category.

In addition, The Alpha Foundation established under the Upper Big Branch settlement this year will award $48 million in grants to winning proposals for new research into coal miners' safety and health.

While progress has been recorded on Alpha's front, it's been lacking on the federal and state government levels. Various lawmakers and President Obama pledged after the Upper Big Branch explosion that federal mining safety laws would be strengthened. More than three years later, that hasn't happened. In West Virginia, lawmakers have approved some new safety regulations, but some of the key ones related to what went wrong at Upper Big Branch have yet to be implemented.

Alpha Natural Resources is making solid strides in its professed commitment to safety. The same can't be said for federal and state lawmakers and bureaucrats. It's time they fulfilled their pledges, too.

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