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Mine Tragedy in West Virginia Highlights Work Safety Issues

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Speaking from the Rose Garden on Friday, President Obama discussed the West Virginia mine disaster and its impact on highlighting dangerous work conditions. He emphasized the need for improved safety, and announced that his aides are preparing a report on this week’s explosion that killed at least 25 miners.

In Charleston, West Virginia, coal mining has been the predominant industry for over a century. Coal still occupies a dominant position in West Virginia, despite increased mechanization, which has decreased the need for workers. However, while mining had a “long and proud history”, as President Obama recently stated, the mine failed to protect its workers. In fact, the mine, operated by the Massey Energy Company, was warned on December 6, 2007 in a letter from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, that it had a “potential pattern of violations”. Furthermore, in more recent years the mine had repeated problems with methane buildups. For example, since April 2009, federal regulators cited the mine eight times for “substantial” problems involving methane control. In fact, in two separate instances, federal regulators discovered that the mine was only calibrating methane every three months instead of every 31 days. With methane levels so high, workers were in danger of injuries or death.

The death toll caused by this coal mining disaster is the highest in American history since a 1970 explosion that killed 38 people at Finley Coal Company in Hyden, Kentucky. Moreover, rescue workers described the scene as overwhelming, with rail lines “twisted like pretzels”. Sadly, the rescue mission came to an end yesterday morning when rescue workers realized that they had accidentally walked past the dead bodies of four miners—the last possible survivors.