The lesson of Upper Big Branch

April 7, 2010

I’ve heard a lot of different perspectives on the recent coal mine accident in West Virginia today.

Some folks speak as if  “accident” and “unavoidable” are synonyms.  Many others, especially those with family who were or are miners, talk about the dangers of mining and the bravery of the miners.  A few folks suggest that the regulators didn’t do their job.  One person told me that Massey Energy Company is an evil corporation.

And all of those things might be true, but I think they miss the point of this particular tragedy.

As far as I can tell, the problem wasn’t that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) didn’t know there were problems with the mine–in March, the Upper Big Branch mine had 53 safety violations.  It’s that they didn’t have the leverage they needed to force change.

As in many industries, the effectiveness of MSHA is limited by the fact that it is usually cheaper to pay the fine than to comply with safety standards.  Last year, 500  citations were issued against the Upper Big Branch mine resulting in fines of $897,325.  I don’t know the specifics, but that averages out to slightly under $1,800 per violation.

When the dangers include flooding, the build-up of methane, roof collapse, equipment malfunction, and combustible coal dust, one can imagine that the remedies aren’t cheap.  And one can also imagine that $1,800 per fine doesn’t offer nearly enough incentive to make them happen.

In order to work, paying the fines has to be more expensive than complying with safety standards.

Plus, as an added benefit, we could invest the higher fines in beefing up inspection.

And the combination of these–broader inspection coverage and higher fines incentivizing compliance–would be a good thing for mine safety.


One comment

  1. […] Just another WordPress.com weblog « The lesson of Upper Big Branch Yes, it has to be regulation. April 8, 2010 As it turns out, yesterday’s post about […]

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