Coal mines, like any other industrial process, cannot be made entirely free of accidents. Miners and their families are well aware of that.
But in the wake of the explosion that claimed 29 lives at a southern West Virginia mine, a basic question about safety needs to be asked. It is not merely what caused the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal. It is not even what can be done to prevent mine explosions in the future.
The question state and federal officials - along with miners and their companies - should be asking is a more basic one. It is whether the foundations of mine safety are solid.
A good place to start the investigation would be the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. It is the agency charged with ensuring that mines are as safe as possible. Questions about the MSHA's effectiveness are not new.
MSHA officials have been criticized roundly under both Republican and Democrat presidents. Days before the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, MSHA officials admitted that mine inspectors are not receiving the training they need to handle safety checks.
Some have not received MSHA retraining - required by the agency's own rules - for years. For many years, there have been issues regarding the agency's ability to enforce safety rules. Some companies, including the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, have scores or even hundreds of MSHA citations and fines pending.
After the terrorist attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, examinations of national security were not confined merely to how fanatics could be stopped from flying airliners into buildings. A variety of other threats were examined. Some steps were taken to improve security - though much remains to be addressed.
The Montcoal disaster should be viewed in a similar fashion. A comprehensive investigation of every aspect of mine safety - including the agency responsible for overseeing that effort - should be mounted.