Following major mine disasters, a flurry of legislative activity occurred as federal and state legislators tried to improve conditions in the coal mines. The greatest loss of life occurred at Monongah in 1907, when at least 361 miners were killed. Congress then created the U.S. Bureau of Mines, but that developed into a production-oriented agency.
Effective lobbying by coal operators seriously weakened each effort by Congress and the state legislature to provide meaningful protection. Following a 1951 disaster in West Frankfort, Illinois, which killed 119 miners, Congress struggled to pass a loophole-ridden bill that President Harry Truman reluctantly signed, while denouncing its shortcomings.
The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 for the first time in history provided health protection and strict safety measures that have nearly eliminated the grim series of mine disasters. By limiting coal dust, the 1969 act enabled miners to work in a healthier environment, and compensated those suffering from pneumoconiosis or black lung. Also, West Virginia state legislation in 1969 for the first time provided that black lung was compensable. These actions followed the disastrous mine explosions at Farmington, Marion County.
Over the objections of coal operators, who contended that stricter regulations would make the industry uncompetitive, Congress empowered federal authorities to close unsafe mines. Inspection forces were beefed up and required to make unannounced inspections. Miners who reported unsafe conditions had their job security protected. Stiff fines were imposed for violations. Non-sparking electrical equipment was required. Other provisions improved ventilation, roof support and methane detection.
On December 30, President Richard Nixon reluctantly signed the 1969 act, criticizing the black lung features and proceeding through his appointees to weaken its enforcement. In 1994, under President Clinton, West Virginian J. Davitt McAteer was appointed head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and enforcement improved noticeably.
Unlike prior legislation, the 1969 act succeeded for a number of reasons. Television reports during and following the Farmington disaster of November 20, 1968, which killed 78 miners, brought the plight of coal miners into everyone’s living room. The Farmington widows and hundreds of coal miners were brought to the nation’s capitol at the expense of Congressman Ken Hechler. Drs. I. E. Buff, Donald Rasmussen, and Hawey Wells held rallies throughout the coalfields and delivered telling testimony to Congressional committees. In defiance of their union leaders, 40,000 West Virginia coal miners staged a wildcat strike in the spring of 1969, demanding effective health and safety laws. David Finnegan in Congressman Hechler’s office and Gary Sellers in the office of health care advocate Ralph Nader helped draft and lobby for the strongest possible law, and their efforts were materially assisted by San Francisco Congressman Phillip Burton.
This Article was written by Ken Hechler
Last Revised on December 16, 2016
Finley, Joseph E. The Corrupt Kingdom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Hume, Brit. Death and the Mines: Rebellion and Murder in the UMW. New York: Grossman Pub., 1971.
Lockard, Duane. Coal. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.
Sinclair, Ward. Lone Ranger of Mine Safety. Louisville Courier-Journal, 1/4/1970.
Cite This Article
Hechler, Ken "Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 16 December 2016. Web. 27 March 2017.