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

Friday, January 20, 2006


Yet Another Mine Disaster?

It's hard to know what to say about yet another incident in West Virginia's mines. More than 20 miners were killed last year in the United States, without anyone really noticiing. Yet after the Sago disaster, the media has become hypersensitive to the issue and has woken up to the farce that our workplace safety agencies have become. Or at least to the farce MSHA has become; OSHA is somehow escaping scrutiny -- but more on that later.

At this point, two miners are still missing after a fire broke out at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia. The mine is operated by Aracoma Coal Co., a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. Officials were optimistic about the miners' survival because there is clean air in several sections of the mine, although it's been so long that hopes are starting to fade. Like the Sago mine, Alma No. 1 had its safety problems:
During its last complete inspection by MSHA, from October through December, the mine was cited for 28 violations. They included seven violations concerning the mine’s ventilation plan and three concerning accumulation of combustible materials, according to MSHA data.

In 2004, the mine’s nonfatal accident rate was significantly better than the national average. But in 2005, the number of accidents rose, and its rate was higher than the national average, according to MSHA records. In 2005, the mine’s nonfatal accident rate was 9.01 injuries per 200,000 hours worked, compared to the national average of 6.39 for similar mines, according to MSHA.

In 2004, the operation paid $17,500 in fines assessed by MSHA for mine safety violations. Last year, the operation was fined $28,268. So far, it has paid nearly $13,000 of those fines. Other assessments have been challenged or still are subject to appeal by the company

More than a dozen of the citations since June were related to inadequate firefighting equipment, MSHA records show.

Meanwhile, blogger Will Bunch already has the goods on the mine's owner, Massey Energy Co, and how this incident and the Sago disaster have awakened us to what's going on behind the scenes of this administration. Bunch notes that the fines are pittifully small, and the company hasn't even paid most of those yet:
It's not like the owners of the Aracoma Mine don't have the money. It is a subsidiary of Massey Energy Corp., the nation's fourth-largest coal company -- and the largest when it came to raising money for the election and re-election of George W. Bush.

One of the most successful of the Bush Pioneers -- donors, like Jack Abramoff, for example, who raised more than $100,000 for the president's campaign -- is a fellow named James W. "Buck" Harless. And Harless, according to the Boston Globe, is...

a major Bush fund-raiser --[who] would get hundreds of millions of dollars in loan guarantees for a coal gasification plant. [His grandson] served on President Bush's energy transition team, a precursor to Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, which developed the critical blueprint for the energy package on Capitol Hill.

In 2000, Harless reportedly raised $275,000 for the Bush campaign and gave another $100,000 to his inaugural fund. He and another West Virginia were invited to a invitation-only briefing on the new president's energy policy. Shortly thereafter, Harless was named a director of Massey Energy.

Massey had actually been involved in quite a pickle with the federal government when Bush took the oath of office. A Massey subsidiary was on the hook for a 2000 coal slurry spill in Kentucky that dumped an estimated 306 million gallons of toxic sludge down 100 miles of waterways -- called by one EPA official the worst environmental disaster in the history of the eastern United States.

That would be the story of whistleblower Jack Spadaro, fired for blowing the whistle on a coverup of the disaster -- who I've written about here and here. Longer stories about Spadaro's fight can be found at Salon (which requires you to watch a short ad to read it) and in the Washington Monthly last year.

And once again within only a couple of weeks I go to bed wondering if I'll wake to good news or bad news from West Virginia.

More 2006 Mine Disaster Stories

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