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Upper Big Branch Officials Are Facing Criminal Charges. Will That Improve Mine Safety?

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against a superintendent of Upper Big Branch Mine, the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 people in 2010. The superintendent, who is the highest-ranking official to face criminal charges so far, is accused of interfering with the work of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). His actions allegedly helped cover up several safety violations at the worksite. How can regulators ensure better mine safety in the future?

A 2011 paper addresses that question by constructing a framework to analyze the effectiveness of mine safety regulators. The authors found that when it comes to strengthening safety after an accident, one crucial factor is public attention: “We document no significant change in agency behavior following a little-publicized disaster occurring shortly after September 11, 2001, but substantial changes following the highly visible Sago mine disaster in 2006.” The authors dispute the notion that mine safety regulation is completely captured by industry, but they do contend that enforcement is not consistent throughout administrations. “A comparison of MSHA’s enforcement response to Upper Big Branch [which occurred during the Obama administration] and Sago [which occurred during the Bush administration],” they write, “suggests a more vigorous response by the Obama-era MSHA than the Bush-era MSHA.” In both administrations, the MSHA cracked down after the disaster by increasing the number of violations with penalties.  But only during the Obama administration did MSHA, on average, increase the proposed penalty per violation (which led to an increased rate of contested violations by the mining companies—something which did not happen during the Bush administration). “These findings,” the authors argue, “suggest the importance of hierarchical political control.” But even so, they admit that their findings are evidence, not proof. After all, even the deadliest mine accidents during the Bush years weren’t as deadly as Upper Big Branch. “We cannot dismiss the possibility that an accident of comparable magnitude occurring under the Bush administration would have fueled public appetite for a similar agency response.”