Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Sunday, January 22, 2006

What We've Learned From The Miners' Deaths

We're only three weeks into the new year, and we've already lost 15 coal miners -- compared with 22 miners killed in all of 2005. At this rate,by the end of 2006...I don't even want to think about it.

As the nation once again attempts to deal with the preventable deaths of two more miners, we will once again be asked by Bush administration apologists not to "play the blame game" and "politicize the issue." Well, maybe it's time for all of us to look at some of the facts that we've learned over the past few weeks -- if we've been paying attention -- and then decide whether or not politics may have had some effect on the lives lost in America's mines over the past three weeks.
  • George Bush's Fiscal Year 2006 budget proposal for MSHA cuts $5 million in real dollars, requiring further cuts to an agency that already has reduced staffing by 170 workers since 2001. Since he took office, President Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years

  • The Bush Administration lied about having "proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Administration rules." In fact, after two years of promises, legislation to increase penalties was just introduced last week.

  • 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. And fines in general have gone down, despite MSHA's attempts to skew the data.

  • Amidst criticism of speed of the recue activities during the Sago mine disaster and overwhelming evidence that the nation's mine rescue system is deteriorating, it was revealed that the Bush administration had withdrawn a proposal that would have revised MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation. In fact, under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn.

  • As we begin the mourning process for the Alma mine workers, the Charleston Gazette reveals the the Bush administration, under coal industry pressure, killed a proposed regulation that would have helped prevent conveyor belt fires -- the fire that killed the Alma miners -- and adopted a change in mine ventilation rules that experts say allow such fires to spread more rapidly through the mine, cutting off miners' fresh air.

  • Locating the lost miners in a short period of time was a major problem in both mine incidents. Nevertheless, MSHA has refused to adopt a requirement for something called PEDS or Personal Emergency Device, which allows for constant contact with the miners, even those working in remote areas.

  • The communications fiasco that left Sago miners' families -- and the entire nation -- believing that the miners had been rescued -- was largely a result of MSHA leaving the communication responsibility to the mine company, instead of MSHA's traditional role of using its own experienced personnel to handle the difficult task of communicating to the families and the media.

  • Fines for serious mine violations are obscenely low. The largest fine among the more than 200 citations at the Sago mine in 2005 was $878, but most ranged from $60 to $250, mere pinpricks in the $110 million net profit reported last year by the mine's current owner, International Coal Group Inc. Most fines were hardly more than you'd pay for a speeding ticket out on the Beltway.

  • And speaking of International Coal Group....Despite company claims that it couldn't be blamed for all of the problems at the Sago mine, because it had purchased the mine only months before the explosion, the Charleston Gazette revealed New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr., has actually controlled ICG, the company that owns the Sago Mine, since at least early 2001

  • Out of $2.3 million in coal company contributions to federal candidates during the 2004 election cycle, 90 percent went to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The lesson: Go forth and politicize. I wrote this a long two weeks ago, but it needs repeating:
But we also need to remember that by passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Mine Safety and Health Act, this country made a solemn promise that everything possible would be done to ensure a safe workplace for American workers. These promises weren't made because a bunch of reasonable politicians thought it was a reasonable thing to do; they were a product of struggle and organizing. They were literally bathed in the blood of millions of American workers who were been maimed and killed building this country and putting food on the table for their families.

And if it takes embarrassing our current crop of politicians into doing their constitutional duty; if it takes "politicizing" the issue and "playing the blame game" to make people live up to their responsibilities, then so be it.
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