Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sago Mine Explosion: Just The Facts, Maam

Joby Warrick's article in the Washington Post today had some interesting facts and quotes about MSHA enforcement of the nation's mine safety. You should read the whole thing, but I've excerpted the best parts. You're welcome. After all, that's what bloggers are for....

The main point of the article:
While inspectors issue a blizzard of paper citations each year, these violations rarely translate into serious penalties, even for the worst offenders, according to government records and interviews with current and former regulators. Large fines are rare, and the most serious sanctions -- such as mine closure -- are almost never used, documents show.

This pattern has been even more pronounced under the Bush administration, which came into office with a promise to forge cooperative ties between regulators and the mining industry.
Other facts:

The Sago Mine
  • The biggest single fine [at Sago] was $440, about 0.0004 percent of the $110 million net profit reported last year by the mine's current owner, International Coal Group Inc.
  • Over two years, the company racked up more than $24,000 in fines, although the individual penalties were all less than $450, and many were $60. The average fine was $150.

Ultimately the agency's response was too little, too late, said Jack Spadaro, a retired agency inspector and engineer in West Virginia.

"The mine should have simply been closed," said Spadaro, who was granted federal whistle-blower status after being demoted four years ago because of what Spadaro says were disagreements with MSHA officials over his aggressive enforcement of safety laws. "The fines were absolutely absurd, but that's all the inspectors can do. The only other option they have is a closure order, and the managers in Washington won't let them close a mine."


"There are simply not enough incentives for safety built into the regulatory and compensation system," said Emily A. Spieler, an occupational safety expert and dean of Northeastern University's School of Law. "Pressure on regulatory agencies to allow unsafe businesses to operate is enormous, and the incentives to comply with regulations are small if the regulatory agency does not issue large fines."

George Bush's Mine Safety and Health Administration


  • During the past five years, the number of mines referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution has dropped steadily, from 38 in 2000 to 12 last year.
  • The total number of hours spent by inspectors inside coal mines has gone up, but the percentage of violations classified by inspectors as serious -- "significant and substantial," in agency jargon -- has declined.
  • MSHA's first leader under President Bush, David D. Lauriski, was a former coal industry executive who advocated a less confrontational style and gave inspectors a less-intimidating job title: "compliance assistance specialists."
  • In 2003, the Government Accountability Office faulted MSHA for failing to follow through when it found violations. Moreover, the agency's Washington leadership did "not provide adequate oversight" to ensure that inspectors were enforcing compliance, the GAO concluded.
Regulations and Other Programs
  • Under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn, and the agency began a series of high-profile "cooperative alliance" agreements with industry to promote safety through education, posters and other voluntary programs.
  • The agency eliminated or scaled back programs favored by unions and watchdog groups that allowed public access to records related to safety performance and accident investigations. For example, MSHA halted the release of notes from mine inspections, which the agency had routinely released under the Freedom of Information Act for a quarter-century.
  • It also shifted many routine accident investigations into closed-door proceedings, in some cases denying entry even to union officials and lawyers representing injured mineworkers, say union officials and former agency employees.
"There was a dramatic shift in MSHA's philosophy in 2001, with a new emphasis on cooperation by the enforcers," said J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the agency under the Clinton administration, "and it came at a cost of less enforcement of the statute."

Joseph Main, a retired UMW health and safety official, said he worried that MSHA's investigation of the Sago accident would focus only on the source of the initial explosion -- instead of seeking answers to the broader questions about mine safety.

"The explosion is just one piece of it," Main said. "They should investigate all the factors that led to the deaths of these men, including the failure of the safety net that was supposed to be in place. If those other questions aren't answered, we will have more Sagos in the future."
Finally, go back now and check out MSHA's friendly Sago Questions and Answers Page and compre some of the bullshit data there with Warrick's article. For example, MSHA says:
MSHA’s aggressive actions at Sago Mine reflect MSHA’s overall record of increased enforcement against mine operators during this Administration. Specifically, from FY 2000 to FY 2005:
  • Total Citations and Orders issued by MSHA at all mines increased by 4% (119,334 to 124,467)
  • Total Citations and Orders issued at coal mines increased by 18% (56,983 to 67,300)
  • Total “Significant and Substantial” Citations and Orders issued at coal mines increased by 13% (23,774 to 26,779)
Note that Warrick and MSHA don't agree on whether "significant and substantial," violations have declined or risen. I'm not sure what the problem is here, but I have a theory. Note that the MSHA numbers begin with FY 2000, which began on October 1, 1999 -- over a year before Bush took office -- more than six years ago. Warrick's data, on the other hand, is from "the last five years." It would be interesting to go back and recheck MSHA's data for only " the last five years," to see if their conclusions are the same.

Or am I being too suspicious?

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