Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mine Safety: Bush Administration to the Rescue?

You'll be happy to know that the families of the miners killed in the Sago Mine explosion are in the President's prayers and that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced that it will begin "an in-depth investigation of the accident....As always, the purpose of MSHA's investigation will be to improve mine health and safety and prevent such tragedies in the future."

That's nice. I suppose we can all move on now. Surely this is no time jump to conclusions and play the "blame game" or "politicize" this tragic event. Right?


First, the MSHA investigation will investigate the direct causes of this incident, and I hope, do a good job. But MSHA won't investigate the deeper root causes of this incident because they lie in the agency itself and deep into the Bush administration and Congress. For those findings, we already have all the evidence we need.

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.

So it is with the utmost respect for the evidence at hand and our system of government that I say that White House Press Spokesman Scotty McClellan is totally full of shit when he argues that the Bush administration is a friend of workers' friend and defender of their safety:
McClellan said mine safety has been a priority for the Bush administration. "In fact this administration proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Administration rules," he said.
Now that's one I haven't heard. The Bush Administration proposing increased MSHA fines?

Turns out there was such a proposal -- but it seems never to have gotten beyond window dressing. In the 2005 and 2006 Fiscal Year Labor Department budgets, the administration actually proposed increasing MSHA fines. In her FY 2005 testimony, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said:
The Administration will seek to strengthen existing enforcement by asking Congress for higher civil monetary penalties. Legislation will be pursued to increase the fine for mine safety violations from $60,000 to $220,000.
Then she said the same thing in the FY 2006 testimony.

The problem is that words are cheap: the administration never actually submitted a proposal to raise those fines.

And while we're talking about putting one's money where one's mouth is, let's follow the money.

Fo back a few years to the last bit (near) mining disaster at the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania where 9 miners were "miraculously" rescued from a flooded mine. Bush staged a photo op after the rescue where he gushed about the American spirit, sticking together, helping neighbors in trouble and all kinds of other feel-good stuff.

But as David Corn wrote in the Nation at that time,
That spirit, though, was not present earlier this year when the Bush administration proposed cutting the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $7 million. The administration defended the 6-percent reduction by noting the number of coal mines has been decreasing. Yet coal mining fatalities have gone up for three years in a row. There were 42 mining fatalities in 2001, 29 in 1998. In March, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, maintained the funding cut would cause a 25 percent reduction in the government's mine-safety inspection workforce. As of March, 612 federal mine inspectors were responsible for enforcing safety regulations in 25 states, and there were signs the system has not been functioning well.
Blogger David Sirota, who worked for the House Appropriations Committee at the time recalls a Fact Sheet that House Democrats put out questioning why the same President who made that speech had made so many cuts to mine safety programs.

The Fact Sheet noted that Bush proposed cuts in the FY 2002 and FY 2003 MSHA budgets (which were restored by Congress.) It also cites an Department of Labor Inspector General's report that found that "MSHA is unable to complete statutorily mandated inspections of Metal/Nonmetal mine operations because of the rapid growth in mine operations, reductions in number of inspectors and shifts toward compliance assistance." The memo no secret; itwas quoted in a Chicago Tribune article. But the Bush administration never responded.

Sirota concluded that
The 2002 fact sheet and the Chicago Tribune article shows that Bush knew full well that mine safety was suffering - and now we know he didn't do anything about it, to tragic consequences. They can put out GOP hacks and administration spokespeople to deny this reality - but the facts are there.
But who will tell the people?

Congressmen George Miller (D-CA) and Major Owens (D-NY) called today for immediate Congressional hearings into mine safety "to examine the events that led up to this terrible tragedy at the Sago Mine."
The lawmakers also cited alarming statistics that show that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has been downsized by 170 positions since 2001. Congress has cut MSHA's funding by $4.9 million, in inflation-adjusted terms, for the 2006 fiscal year, compared with 2005. Moreover, Miller said, the Bush Administration has appointed numerous officials to the agency who have close ties to the mining industry. These officials, in the last five years, have rolled back a number of regulations aimed at improving mine worker safety, Miller said.
The letter also calls upon the Committee to investigate whether the numerous MSHA officials who have come directly from the mining industry can effectively oversee the industry and protect its workers.
The United Mine Workers has compiled a list of MSHA officials’ connections to the mining industry. For example, President Bush’s first appointment to MSHA was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Lauriski, a long-time management official in the mining industry. In addition, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for MSHA John Caylor held management jobs with Cyprus Minerals Co., Amax Mining Co. and Magma Copper Co. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for MSHA John Correll served in management posts at Amax Mining and Peabody Coal companies. Special Assistant for MSHA Mark Ellis served as legal counsel to the American Mining Congress. And Chief of Health for Coal Melinda Pon was a management official at BHP Minerals-Utah International.
The Congressmen highlight another serious problem that I've also written about: When one party controls all branches of government, there is no effective oversight of government functions:
Miller and Owens also wrote that Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibilities on worker safety issues. It has not held any hearings on mine worker safety since 2001, and has held just two hearings related to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - and both of those hearings focused on alternatives and weakening OSHA enforcement.
Will Bunch in the Philadelphia News's Attytood Blog brings all of the budget cuts, industry influence and rank hypocricy together describing the connection between the Sago mine disaster and the Abramoff influnce peddling scandle currently gripping Washington:
Don't look past the big picture. The roots of the horrific events underneath the earth in timeworn West Virginia, and the scandal on the tony sidewalks of Washington's K Street, are as deeply intertwined as those aspens out west, maybe more so. It's a connection that can be summed up in three simple words:

Republicans gone wild.

The confluence of big business and too-powerful lobbyists, including the revolving door between K Street and federal government, the casual and cynical selling-off of the safety net for blue collar and low wage workers, the arrogance and secrecy that come with unchecked political power in one party -- these are all the hallmarks of Abramoff and his alleged influence peddling on Capital Hill.

But a review of the way that Washington has treated the coal industry in America since 2001 -- and the Sago mine in particular -- show all of these exact same problems coming to roost in the steep hills of West Virginia.
And finally, let's take one more step back and take a look at the even bigger picture. This administration has been obsessed with one thing since it took office: tax cuts and favor for its friends. What that translates into is "Shrinking government..." -- at least the part that provides protections for workers -- "to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" as Bush Administration ideolouge Grover Norquist says.

Well "government" isn't some abstract thing. Shrinking government means that agencies like OSHA and MSHA have less power to enforce the law and maintain safe working conditions. So, while drowning government in a bathtub, we're also asphyxiating workers in a coal mine.

As Will Bunch concludes:
These struggling work-a-day people look and seem a million miles away from the white linen tableclothes of K Street restaurants and the plush corporate jets where lobbyists like Jack Abramoff and revolving-door bureaucrats and well-fed lawmakers are making the cold policy decisions that affect their lives.

But until people make that connection between the corruption on one end of the American political pipeline and the human misery on the other end, these problems will linger in the air like toxic coal dust.

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