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2016 sees record-low coal mine fatalities

For the first time in more than 100 years, U.S. coal mining fatalities could remain in the single digits.

"We work to continue to drive that number toward zero," U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrator leader Joseph Main said on a recent call.

As of Dec. 22, only nine fatalities were reported this year at the nation's coal mines, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. That is compared to 12 deaths in 2015 and 16 deaths in 2014.

"I think the change that has happened since 2010 is really a recognition across the industry, that the regulations are the baseline from which you build on and there's a need to shift from a reactive to proactive mode to be able to identify potential hazards and to the maximum extent possible, engineer those out of the workplace before they turn into any potential hazardous condition that puts miners in harm's way," said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association.

Watzman said a fresh look at mining in recent years has sparked an industry effort to change the status quo and drive a continuous improvement in mine safety.

"It's a far cry from the industry we grew up with, that existed 10 years ago," Watzman said.

Another reason 2016 was historic: the U.S. government landed the conviction of Don Blankenship, the former CEO of the multibillion-dollar Massey Energy, who is the first high-ranking mine executive to serve jail time for violating workplace safety laws. He was convicted for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and sentenced to one year in prison.

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The worst year for coal mining fatalities was 1907, when 3,242 died in the nation's coal mines. It would be another four decades before fatalities would dip below 1,000 annual deaths and continue their downward trajectory. While dramatic improvement occurred in the years following the 1977 Mine Act, the figures have alternately risen and fallen since stalling in 2000.

Fatalities spiked in 2010, when 29 miners died in the explosion of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine, bringing the annual total to 48. Each of the next three years saw another 20 fatalities.

Two of the 2016 deaths were the result of a portion of a mine wall breaking loose. A third miner died in the hospital six days after methane ignited in the mining shaft while he was working. The other six coal mining fatalities this year were classified as power haulage- or machinery-related deaths.

Four of the nine fatalities, including the first of the year, occurred in West Virginia. Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said safety has improved in coal mines since the Upper Big Branch mine deaths.

"Any time you have an accident of that magnitude, the consciousness of individual safety and the fact that safety is a responsibility of every single miner as well as mine management and other organizations that are involved with the mining of coal," Hamilton said. "It does raise the awareness and bring to everyone's attention just how we're dealing with an environment that has various aspects that must be managed and controlled as we typically do day in and day out. It serves as a big reminder, a big eye-opener, that no matter how much experience you have, no matter how much competency on the job, you need to back up a little bit and refocus and recondition yourself to make sure all the safety steps are followed."

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However, Hamilton added that he believes MSHA has become more "adversarial" under the Obama administration. He said that despite coal being "no more hazardous, no more dangerous" than other heavy industries, coal mines are given much greater scrutiny and enforcement.

"You have a lot of the federal mine inspectors that all intents and purposes probably ought to be working for the federal marshal because they are not all that concerned with the safety performance of the mine," Hamilton said. "They are more concerned with writing paper and trying to fine."

Murray Energy Corp. CEO Bob Murray agreed in a recent interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence. He claims that MSHA is "out of control" and is more about politics and quotas than mine safety.

"I think the mines are much safer today than they've ever been," Murray said. "No question about it ... much safer today. But they could be even safer than they are. If I could take the manpower I have to dedicate to the bureaucracy called MSHA under the Department of Labor and take that manpower to focus on the training of our miners to work safely and on the inspections of the mines themselves, the mines would be even safer if this regulatory overreach of MSHA were stopped."

As MSHA adjusted its enforcement strategies in the wake of Upper Big Branch, coal mine fatalities began to fall even closer to zero.

Since 2010, MSHA has been issuing fewer citations and orders to coal companies. By fiscal year 2013, the dollar amount assessed for violating mine law dropped dramatically.

In fiscal year 2016, MSHA issued 40,390 citations and orders assessed at $23.7 million, down from 97,573 orders and citations totaling $107.3 million in 2010.

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