CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. coal industry had its deadliest year in nearly two decades in 2010, with much of the death toll stemming from a single explosion.
As of Thursday, 48 miners had died in the nation's 1,500 coal mines over the past 12 months – including 29 who were killed April 5 in a blast at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine. This year's was the highest death toll since 55 were killed in 1992, according to information compiled by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. And it was much higher than the 18 killed in 2009, the industry's lowest tally since 1900, according to federal records.
State and federal investigators say their report on what caused the Upper Big Branch blast, the deadliest U.S. coal mine explosion since 1970, won't be finished until late next year.
"Everyone in the industry is concerned about 2010 and what we saw there and is taking a look at all aspects of mine safety," said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, an industry trade group.
MSHA officials declined to address the 2010 death toll until the year is done.
Many of the 2010 deaths were caused by gas explosions, moving equipment and other factors long thought to be under the industry's control.
"We're seeing causes of incidents including fatalities reappear that have not been prominent causes of fatal injuries for some time, for instance a lot of fatalities involving moving equipment," Raulston said. "We thought we had really trained or done equipment modifications to move that out of the trendlines and here it comes again."
Earlier this month, MSHA launched a safety initiative called "Watch Out!" The initiative targets injuries and deaths caused by moving equipment. The agency said three miners were killed this year by underground shuttle cars and coal scoops.
The industry endured a similarly disastrous year in 2006, when 47 miners were killed. Three high-profile accidents killed 19 miners – including the explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine that killed 12.
Congress responded in 2006 by passing sweeping safety legislation. In 2007, the number of deaths fell to 34. It dropped to 30 in 2008.
But the response to the Upper Big Branch explosion and other fatalities this year has been limited largely to tougher inspections by government regulators.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House rejected a measure that would have made it easier to shut down problem mines, increased penalties for serious safety violations and offered more protection for whistle-blowers.
"The entire industry as well as our elected representatives are going about this accident in a more methodical, deliberate manner," Chris Hamilton, a senior vice president with the West Virginia Coal Association, said of the Upper Big Branch explosion.
In rejecting the measure, House Republicans said the legislation would do little to advance mine safety and would unfairly penalize mining companies that operated in good faith.
Federal regulators have credited a series of tough inspections at problem mines with cleaning up the industry since the Upper Big Branch explosion. MSHA said it had issued more than 600 citations and orders in October and November.
Last week, MSHA announced another safety effort.
The agency plans to require underground coal mine operators to check for health and safety violations, in addition to the hazard checks they now conduct. The inspections must be done before and during work shifts, as well as weekly and as follow-ups.
"I don't think there's any question mining's much safer today than a decade, two decades ago," Hamilton said.
Federal mining statistics bear Hamilton out. Between 1900 and 1945 it was common to have annual death tolls of 2,000 or more. The last time more than 100 people died in the nation's coal mines was 1984, when 125 miners were killed.
Besides the 29 killed at Upper Big Branch, another six were killed in West Virginia, the nation's second-largest coal producing state. Kentucky, the nation's third-largest producer, recorded six deaths. Other mining deaths occurred in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana and Montana.