Thursday, August 05, 2004

Kerry Criticizes MSHA Head; Promises Improvements

Political folklore states that the Democrats lost West Virginia in 2000 because of gun control and environmental issues. People continue to buy the NRA line that equated a ban on assault weapons with taking away peoples' right to go hunting. And, unfortunately the old jobs vs. the environment issue still plays well in areas of chronic high unemployement. And the United Mine Workers' ambivalent attitude toward the environmental movement and environmental regulations hasn't helped much.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry seems to be attempting to get away from the charged political issues and turn the discussion toward issues that affect workers -- especially mineworkers -- every day when they go to work. Kerry promised to put someone in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) who is committed “to protect the workers, not the coal companies,” according to his campaign.

In a prepared statement, the Kerry campaign harshly criticized the Bush administration’s record on coal-mine safety.

“George W. Bush has had the wrong philosophy and has installed a mining executive to the top position when he should have put someone who is an advocate for mine workers,” the statement said.

Dave Lauriski, who is in charge of MSHA, worked as a coal company executive for 30 years. Like John Henshaw at OSHA, Lauriski had demphasized regulations and argues that "the agency needs to focus more on safety training, education and compliance assistance."

The United Mine Workers have not been impressed with MSHA's performance:
West Virginia, the second largest coal producing state, lead the nation last year with 10 fatalities, including three in a January explosion at the CONSOL Energy McElroy Mine near Moundsville.

After that accident, MSHA’s lead investigator said that the agency did not inspect the job as frequently as necessary.

In October 2003, Lauriski himself cited “unexcused deficiencies” by MSHA personnel charged with overseeing a Cody Mining operation in Kentucky before a fatal accident there in June 2003.

Ray McKinney, MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety and health, has rejected a freedom of Information Act request for documents that might detail those “unexcused deficiencies.”

Also last year, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that MSHA inspectors frequently failed to return to mines to ensure that serious safety problems were fixed.

Lawmakers had asked for the GAO review after 13 workers died in a series of explosions at the Jim Walters Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001.
The Kerry campaign promised to implement the recommendations of that GAO report and committed to:
  • Monitor the timeliness of inspections conducted as part of the six-month review of certain mine plans.

  • Ensure that mine operators correct hazards identified during inspections in a timely manner.

  • Develop a plan to address expected shortages in the number of qualified MSHA inspectors as current employees retire.

  • Revise the systems used to collect information on accidents and investigations.