After a 2006 West Virginia mine explosion killed a dozen miners, coal companies spent more than $1 billion on new safety measures that did nothing to save the lives of at least 25 more men under similar circumstances this week.
The problem is that the safety reforms passed into law since the Sago mine disaster were focused almost exclusively on sustaining trapped miners long enough to rescue them, not on preventing underground explosions.
The result? Victims of Monday's blast at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine probably died without ever getting a chance to use any of the expensive safety gear installed at the mine.
"That argues for doing more on the preventative side," said National Mining Association lobbyist Bruce Watzman. "We need to be doing both."
After Sago, where 12 miners died after being trapped for two days following an explosion, West Virginia and then Congress pushed through reforms that ordered mines to stockpile emergency oxygen, build so-called "refuge chambers," and install sophisticated wireless communications systems and other gear.
Based on surveys of mine operators, Watzman estimates the industry has spent at least $1 billion to comply with those rules in the nation's nearly 500 coal mines.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said those changes have helped, but lawmakers never considered beefing up prevention measures and still haven't, Watzman said.
"There was really no opportunity, unfortunately," he said.
Industry officials and regulators agree that whatever reforms result from the Upper Big Branch mine should be focused on preventing explosions and other disasters.
Kentucky lawyer and safety advocate Tony Oppegard says the agency needs to push Congress to mandate six inspections of underground mines each year, rather than four.
"I've been saying this for years, but it certainly falls on deaf ears at MSHA (the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration)," Oppegard said.
Other preventive measures could include requiring coal companies to pump out the methane gas before mining a coal deposit and conducting more accurate testing to determine the flammability of conveyer belts and other mine equipment — the most common causes of mine fires.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has discovered that modern mining equipment spits out more coal dust, which can intensify a small explosion into a deadly blast.
"You've had an ignition and there's a fireball, and if the quantity of methane is sufficient, that fireball begins to move," said Jeff Kohler, the institute's associate director for mining.
Even Massey CEO Don Blankenship, an outspoken critic of the changes since Sago, thinks lawmakers need to focus more attention on preventing explosions.
"I hope the regulation that comes out of this tragedy is different than the regulation that came out of the other tragedies," he said.
Investigators believe concentrated methane gas was behind this week's explosion in Montcoal, W.Va., as at Sago. The colorless, odorless, yet highly flammable gas presents a major challenge for mine operators, who rely on air sensors and ventilation equipment to control methane levels underground.
Methane detectors have been commonplace in underground mines since the 1970s, but it's not clear whether they were in use at Upper Big Branch at the time of the explosion. The devices often automatically shut off the equipment they're connected to if methane levels rise past 2 percent, said Scott Shearer, CEO of CSE Corp., which makes gas sensors and emergency gear for miners. The gas generally becomes combustible at 5 percent.
MSHA has repeatedly cited the Upper Big Branch mine for problems with its ventilation system, including two large fines in January for having dirty air flowing into an escapeway where fresh air should be, and an emergency air system flowing in the wrong direction.
But Massey has frequently appealed its violations, an increasingly common tactic by mine operators following the Sago deaths. Mine companies are now contesting 27 percent of the violations they face, compared with just 6 percent in 2005.
The flood of appeals has clogged an overburdened system and allowed repeat violators to delay more serious punishment. As long as the citations are being contested, MSHA does not consider them in deciding whether there is a serious enough pattern of misconduct to warrant greater scrutiny.
Critics say the agency has been too slow to respond to these tactics and that reining in the appeals process would go a long way toward preventing catastrophes.
Celeste Monforton, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said the Obama administration was aware a year ago that a surge in appeals of violations was creating a huge backlog of cases. She said the MSHA could have changed its policy to account for the backlog by looking at more recent patterns of violations.
"That's a huge missed opportunity for the new administration," said Monforton, who spent six years as a special assistant to MSHA's assistant director.
According to an MSHA report prepared for Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Upper Big Branch Mine met all the criteria for a pattern of violations as far back as 2007. But the mine avoided stiffer penalties, such as shutting down the mine, by reducing its rate of the most serious violations. It was unclear how.
The agency also told Byrd's office it had issued 61 orders to withdraw miners from the facility during 2009 and 2010, although it was unclear what prompted those or whether they were full or partial evacuations.
Rep. Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat whose district includes the Montcoal mine, has promised congressional hearings into the disaster, but he's less certain about pushing through more changes.
"I can't say it's going to lead to a new law yet until we find the cause," he said.
United Mine Workers labor union President Cecil Roberts said more regulation isn't needed, just better enforcement.
"Mine safety laws and regulations have progressed to the point where, when followed and properly enforced, they should prevent disasters like this one at Upper Big Branch from happening," Roberts said. "Clearly that was not the case here."
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