Some 100 union coal miners jammed the Mine Safety and Health Administration district office in Morgantown, W.Va., Oct. 24. They demanded stepped up enforcement of safety laws, oxygen packs and other equipment, and more mine inspectors. They also protested President Bush’s appointment of a coal operator to head the federal mine safety agency.

The day before, the year’s death toll in the mines rose to 42, the highest number since 1991, when 22 miners were killed.

Dale Russell Reightler, 43, father of three, died inside the R&D Coal Company Buck Mountain anthracite mine, nearly a half-mile underground in eastern Pennsylvania. Preliminary press reports said that, after checking the atmosphere for volatile methane gas, miners set off two explosions safely. A third explosion was the fatal blast. Four miners and a foreman escaped. It took R&D an hour to report the explosion, a violation of the new mine safety law that could carry a fine of $60,000.

Word spread rapidly through the tiny, close-knit Tremont, Pa., mining community. Resident Diana Cara told The Associated Press that neighbors were bringing food and comfort to Reightler’s family. “The folks here really take care of each other,” Cara said.

R&D Coal, in operation since 1995, has not had a fatality until now and does not have a long list of MSHA safety citations. In 2004, production was shut down when four miners suffered broken bones from an air-line burst.

The Buck Mountain mine is typical for anthracite coal mining. Anthracite is a hard coal that comes from eastern Pennsylvania, and was once widely used. It’s now a small but profitable part of the industry. Employing only nine miners, who produce 15,000 tons per year, the site generates $701,100, or $77,900 per miner, for R&D Coal each year.

Just days before the Reightler family found out their father was not coming home, three other miners were killed:

• Thomas Channell Jr., 49, was killed Oct. 20 when a mine wall collapsed, pinning him against a shuttle car. Channell was working underground inside Alpha Natural Resources’ Whitetail Kittanning mine in Preston County, W.Va. MSHA records show that the owners had been cited for 293 violations so far in 2006. There had been 25 roof falls or wall collapses at the mine. MSHA only fined the company an average of $235 per incident.

• A seven-foot rock fell on mine supervisor Jerry McKinney, Oct.11, killing him inside the Jim Walters Resources’ No. 4 mine in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

• On Oct. 6, miner Joe Seay, 56, was killed inside D&R Company Coal Mine No. 2 near Barbourville, Ky. Seay was mining a narrow 24-inch seam when a 5-foot-long slab of rock fell on him, killing him instantly, according to county Deputy Coroner Mike Johnson. Since 2005, the state cited Lloyd Cole and Larry Hubbard, owners of D&R Coal Company, 14 times and MSHA found 30 violations.

In a statement, the United Mine Workers union demanded that MSHA “take immediate action” to enforce the nation’s safety laws. The union said this should include reviewing mine safety regulations dropped by the Bush administration in 2001.

On Oct. 19, while the Senate was in recess, Bush appointed Richard Stickler, former head of Bethlehem Steel’s mining division, BethEnergy, to head MSHA. Stickler ran the Pennsylvania state mine safety agency from 1997-2003. During his watch, nine coal miners were trapped for three days in a flooded underground mine at Quecreek, near Somerset, Pa. Stickler was rejected twice by the Senate but the recess appointment puts him in charge of MSHA until 2007.

Stickler “lacks the trust of the miners he’s charged to protect,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). “We need a bulldog agency that will place miner safety over all priorities,” not an agency that places “a higher priority on mine production than on miner protection.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “The Senate had twice returned this flawed nomination to the White House. But just like so many other matters, the president refused to listen and proceeded on a dangerous and unwise course.

“Hopefully, the November elections will send a clear message” and change the balance of power in Congress towards pro-worker policies, Sweeney said.