Appalling

“We are fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies to investigate this incident,” said Patriot Coal Executive Vice President of Operations Mike Day. That is likely no comfort to the families of miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley, who were killed in a roof collapse at Patriot’s Brody #1 Mine, near Wharton, W.Va., Monday.

Those families might be wishing Patriot Coal had fully cooperated with state and federal mine regulatory agencies before the fatal incident. Just four days before the roof collapse, a Sunshine Act Notice was issued as an alert that a May 22 hearing had been scheduled for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to hear arguments concerning a Pattern of Violations that had been issued at Brody #1 Mine, in October 2013. In fact, the Brody mine was among three mines that were the first to receive such notifications after new rules went into effect in March 2013.

Last year, the Brody mine received a mind-boggling 514 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Instead of working to address the hundreds of safety concerns at the mine, Patriot appears to have spent much of the past several months arguing about whether the violations took place under previous ownership. In fact, a judge tried to demonstrate to Patriot the urgency of the need to improve conditions at the mine by denying an appeal for temporary relief, saying Brody Mining LLC had not met the burden of proof that its miners’ safety and health would not be affected by a temporary relief order.

Still, Patriot appears not to have had its priorities even remotely in order. Even after receiving the POV notification, the Brody mine received nearly 70 withdrawal orders – forced evacuations of any portion of the mine affected by violations. While it is not clear whether efforts to rectify such an appalling safety record would have made any difference in the events that led to the deaths of Legg and Hensley, Patriot’s poor record – and desire to fight regulators rather than fix the problems – certainly raise eyebrows.

West Virginians know all too well the painful effects of mine accidents and fatalities. We should not be as numb to it as we are. Patriot and coal companies across the country must begin to fight far harder for the health and safety of the men and women who keep them in business than they fight to avoid accountability in the courtroom.