Sunday, February 12, 2006

USA Today: Coal Miners' Lives Not Worth Much

USA Today is jumping on the crusade to value miners' lives more than JANET JACKSON'S BREAST:
The federal government levied a larger fine — $550,000 — for the 2004 Super Bowl showing of JANET JACKSON'S BREAST than it did for the 2001 deaths of 13 Alabama miners in one of the deadliest mine disasters in a quarter-century. And the $435,000 fine against mine operator Jim Walter Resources was cut by a judge to $3,000.
We here at Confined Space can only praise those who insist on bringing up JANET JACKSON'S BREAST in this context, because every time I write about JANET JACKSON'S BREAST, my Google hits skyrocket. Now some may accuse me of dishonestly attracting web traffic by gratuitously mentioning some of the most searched-for words on the web (like SEX, BREAST, JANET JACKSON). But this isn't a totally exploitative thing for me to do because every time a sex-starved young man does a search for photos of JANET JACKSON'S BREAST, he may also find himself enlightened about the fact that coal companies pay some of the smallest fines of any industry for federal violations.

That can't be a bad thing. Right?

Of course, those looking up the Environmental Protection Agency or the Federal Communications Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission may also find their way to this USA Today article where they would discover that while MSHA' highest possible fine is $60,000 for each violation of a mine health and safety standard, the EPA, FEC and SEC can levy fines of $1 million or more for a single violation.

The fact that MSHA is allowed to reduce fines by 30% if the company quickly fixes the problem is also not without controversy:
"That doesn't make any sense," says Steve Webber, who oversaw mining penalties for the federal government from 1999 to 2003, when he retired. "You're rewarding (mine) operators for correcting conditions that should not have existed in the first place."

The Bush administration has said that higher fines are not as effective as forcing companies to close unsafe areas until they are fixed.

Tim Biddle, an attorney for coal companies, said higher penalties won't improve safety. "I really don't think any responsible mine operator makes any decision about safety based on civil penalties," he said.
No, especially when the penalties are far less than actually fixing the unsafe conditions. Wouldn't be responsible to your stockholders, wasting money on fixing the place up, when you can just get away with paying insignificant fines?

Another USA Today article the same day illustrates why violating black lung dust standards makes sense to the bottom line:
"It's like fining you or me 25 cents for a speeding violation," says Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety adviser in the Clinton administration. The $268 fine is equal to the price of 4 or 5 tons of coal.

"You can mine 4 tons of coal in a couple of minutes," Oppegard says. "It's cheaper to exceed the dust limits, expose a miner to black lung and pay the fine than it is to do the right thing."

And anyway, did the network get its fine reduced because Justin Timberlake quickly covered up JANET JACKSON'S BREAST? Is the FCC going to reduce fines for FULL FRONTAL NUDITY ON TELEVISION as long as actors cover themselves quickly? I think not.

And here's another thing you horny young men should think about when your brains get back to serious business:
Mining fines are particularly small compared with recent record profits in the coal industry. The 10 largest publicly held coal companies reported combined profits of $2.4 billion last year on $24 billion in sales.

"The price of coal has increased dramatically and the price of penalties has not," Davitt McAteer, mine-safety chief in the Clinton administration, told a Senate panel recently. Increasing fines "needs to be done and it needs to be done immediately."
And yes, Virginia, elections do matter. Bill Clinton may have been having SEX IN THE OVAL OFFICE, but...
When Congress rewrote mine-safety laws in 1977, fines barely changed. Lawmakers toughened coal mine inspections and required rescue teams at the mines.

The maximum fine stayed at $10,000 until 1993 when Congress raised it to $50,000. It's risen to $60,000 in recent years to account for inflation.

Maximum fines have been imposed in just 12 violations in the last five years, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records. In the Clinton administration's last six years, maximum fines were levied following 72 violations, agency records show.
Now, if I can just figure out a way to connect the PARIS HILTON VIDEO to fatal trench collapses...