Monday, August 09, 2004

Miners' Lives for Sale?

The New York Times, in a long investigative article, covers an all-too-familiar story: While two or three coal miners are killed every month in mining accidents and hundreds still die each year of Black Lung disease, workplace health & safety and environmental regulations are weakened by government officials who are former executives and lobbyists of mining companies that are major contributors of campaign funds to the Republican party.
In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.

Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official - Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease.

The reintroduction of the coal dust measure came after the federal agency had abandoned a series of Clinton-era safety proposals favored by coal miners while embracing others favored by mine owners.
Bush's promise to relax environmental restrictions on coal mining in 2000 may have been a factor leading to the Democratic loss in West Virginia. Bush has made good on those promises.

Among the Bush initiatives:
  • Increasing by four-fold the amount of coal dust levels in mines, despite the fact that Black Lung disease remains a serious hazard and that NIOSH has recommended that dust levels be cut in half. The Bush administration argues that miners can wear respirators which even the respirator manufacturer, 3M, has problems with.

  • New rules that would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.

  • Withdrawal of a Clinton administration proposal that would have updated technology to better protect workers from the two-story-high trucks that haul coal.

  • Easing of regulations on mountain-top removal which destroys streams and forests.
So what's going on? Again, it's a sadly familiar story:
"This is a results-oriented administration," said Joseph M. Lovett, a lawyer for environmental groups that have sued to block the mountaintop mining rules. "It knows who it wants to reward."

Over the last six years, coal companies have donated $9 million to federal political candidates and party organizations, and 90 percent has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Coal production has expanded in the West, but in most Appalachian states, where mining jobs are highly coveted, employment has stagnated or slipped since 2000. As a result, the battle over coal in crucial swing states is a wild card in this fall's election.
As I reported last week, mine safety has become an election issue when John Kerry condemned the Bush administration for putting the proverbial fox in charge of guarding the chicken coup.

The Times quotes one miner, however, who notes that in job-hungry West Virginia, "some miners were sticking with Mr. Bush because they were "kind of afraid that Mr. Kerry could be too big of an environmentalist" and restrict mountaintop mining. "They see it as doom and gloom," he said."