In April, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Armstrong Coal for an incident involving the stability of a highwall at the same mine, the Associated Press reported Saturday. Though a company spokesman said that citation was unrelated to last week’s collapse, Armstrong Coal has a history of safety violations at the site. MSHA has cited Armstrong for at least 15 safety violations in the two years it has operated the mine, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports:
Armstrong has operated the Equality mine since December 2008 and has been producing coal there since 2010.
As of the end of September, the mine employed 129 people and had produced 1.5 million tons of coal for the year to date, MSHA records show.
The mine was cited for nine safety violations with $1,531 in penalties in 2010 and 6 violations carrying $1,394 in penalties this year, according to MSHA’s citation database.
Some of the citations were for violations of regulations governing the placement of materials on the tops of pits or highwalls and the operation of mining equipment, the records show.
Armstrong isn’t the only coal company to experience a fatal accident at a mine where it had been repeatedly cited for safety violations. Massey Energy amassed thousands of safety violations at its Upper Big Branch mine near Beckley, West Virginia, before an explosion there killed 29 miners in 2010. Days later, two miners died in a roof collapse at the Dotiki Mine in Providence, Kentucky. Federal inspectors had cited owner and operator Alliance Resource Partners with 840 safety violations in the 16 months preceding the accident.
Still, many of Kentucky’s politicians continue to look the other way when it comes to enforcing and strengthening mine safety laws. After the 2010 accidents, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and other Kentucky politicians largely avoided questions about the efficacy of the nation’s mine safety laws. Just days after the Dotiki explosion, Gov. Steve Beshear (D) appeared at the opening of another Kentucky mine owned by Alliance but made no mention of mine safety or of Alliance’s shoddy safety history. Before that, Beshear fired Ron Mills, head of Kentucky’s mining permit agency, for refusing dozens of Alliance’s permits, and Beshear also appointed one of Alliance’s top safety officials to the Kentucky Mining Board, despite the fact that at least nine miners have died at Alliance-owned mines since 2005.
Most infamously, Sen. Rand Paul (R) — who issued a statement on the accident Friday — suggested during his 2010 campaign that the coal industry should be able to regulate itself, as ThinkProgress noted at the time:
“The bottom line is: I’m not an expert, so don’t give me the power in Washington to be making rules,” Paul said at a recent campaign stop in response to questions about April’s deadly mining explosion in West Virginia…“You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You’d try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don’t, I’m thinking that no one will apply for those jobs.”
Federal investigators determined that both the Upper Big Branch and Dotiki disasters could have been prevented, and given the recent safety violations, a similar verdict at Equality would not be a surprise. Still, little has emerged from those tragedies to improve mine safety laws, with political leaders instead using industry-wide talking points to decry others of waging a “War on Coal.” It’s enough to beg the question: Are Kentucky’s political leaders putting their Big Coal campaign donors ahead of actual human lives?