Coal mines are more dangerous than most other workplaces. For that reason, extraordinary steps are taken to minimize the hazards miners face.
Such precautions have proven inadequate at a mine near Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners died in a methane gas explosion last week.
Methane is a threat in many mines, more so in some than in others. It has been responsible for the most horrific mine disasters in U.S. history.
Initial reports from the Upper Big Branch Mine where tragedy struck included the news that, according to The Associated Press, the coal company "has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas ..." During the past year, federal inspectors have fined the company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., more than $382,000 for "serious violations," the AP added.
It is not at all uncommon for state and federal mine inspectors to hand out citations for failures to abide by safety regulations. Most of the time the infractions appear to be relatively minor and are corrected expeditiously.
At both the state and federal levels, the Upper Big Branch Mine's record on methane violations should be investigated, however. The question that needs to be answered is simple: Did the company's lapses contribute to the explosion that killed 29 miners?
Depending on the answer to that, additional questions may arise. They include whether state and federal rules regarding methane are adequate.
It is impossible to make coal mines free of accidents. Safety practices and rules in mines are important because a mishap deep underground may affect dozens of workers.
State and federal investigations of the tragedy have begun. We urge those responsible to move quickly to determine what went wrong - in order to prevent a similar disaster at another mine.