Mine Shaft
Undermining Mine Safety
By Kit Smith

The Sago mine explosion on Monday, January second serves as an ugly and harsh reminder of the inherent dangers of mining. Most Americans seem oblivious to the fact that coal-fired power plants still generate the vast majority of our home electricity. Beyond even the forgotten power plants is the vast and largely anonymous world of regulatory agencies, many of which have quietly been stripped of power, resources, and expertise over the past six years.

Even before the awful miscommunication regarding the number of miners alive, distressing reports of safety violations had made it to press, including accumulation of combustible materials such as coal dust and loose coal. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA—a division of the Department of Labor in charge of enforcing federal safety and health laws and regulations in U.S. mines) issued 208 citations to the Sago mine in 2005, some as recently as Dec. 21st.

The incident report and response appearing on the MSHA website seems reasonable and makes the agency seem aggressive and preventative in its handling of the Sago mine. Operations at the site had reportedly more than doubled, triggering the MSHA to increase its inspection and enforcement presence. None of these violations “involved an immediate risk of injury,” and as to the concern over the possibility that one of the safety violations cited causing the explosion, “Until MSHA completes its investigation of the accident and determines the likely causes of the explosion, it is impossible to speculate on what the causes might have been.”

Opinions on the mine’s overall safety record vary. MSHA says the number of accidents and citations is in line with the volume of operations. An AP report dated January fourth described the mine as “a newer addition to a recently minted coal producer, created by a New York billionaire known for turning around troubled companies without scrimping on safety.” Workers from said billionaire’s previous ventures in steel had positive things to say, including Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh. “They cared a fair amount about safety... had a pretty good safety program and one that really respected the union.”

But Lawrence Messina reported in the Washington Post on January third that “the injury rate per hours worked in 2004, the most recent year for such data, was nearly three times the national rate for a mine of its type.” This was before the new owner took over, but what kind of legacy—conditions, accurate maps, etc—was left by the previous operator?

Additionally incriminating is MSHA’s conspicuous absence during the Sago crisis, followed by apparent stonewalling. Numerous reporters have complained on public platforms such as Democracy Now! and other, local public radio programs of being refused FOIA requests. Sometimes they were refused information that had been previously available. Other times, the requested information arrived so late as to be irrelevant, and often proved incomplete.

An editorial published in Mine Safety and Health News in July 2004 angrily questioned then-recent MSHA policy changes that stopped the agency from releasing inspectors’ notes about injuries, fatalities, and other mining accidents. After twenty-seven years of openness, the agency seemed to be openly snubbing the Freedom of Information Act.

The job of the MSHA is to inspect mines and ensure the safety of people who work in them. Mines are required to be inspected four times a year. This is analogous to having a car inspected. Ideally, the mechanic doesn’t try to make $1700 by fixing muffler bearings, but does let car owners know about mushy brakes and outed taillights.

Mining companies look to regulatory agencies for guidelines and advice on how to operate safely. But what if such agencies have been corrupted, say by being stacked with reps preserving corporate interests? Well, you know your never-employed-for-long cousin who doesn’t want his El Camino inspected, he just wants to pay $35 for the magic sticker so he can keep driving home drunk and getting laid in the back? It’s like having him run the inspection shop.

Bush is beholden to the mining industry for the 9 million dollars they have pumped into mostly Republican federal candidate coffers. The administration has begun paying back this debt: in 2002, Bush appointed Stanley Suboleski as Commissioner to the legal review commission of the MSHA. Prior to this appointment, Suboleski spent many years with massive coal conglomerate Massey Energy. Similarly, current head of MSHA, Richard Stickler spent nearly thirty years in management for the mining unit of Bethlehem Steel.

Former MSHA head Dave Lauriski was also a Bush selection. Lauriski had also been in the mining business for roughly thirty years, holding such positions as general manager of Energy West Mining Company and chairman of the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining.

Under Lauriski, the mining industry reportedly had the lowest number of mine fatalities in recorded history, and between 2000 and 2003 fatalities dropped 34%. Scrutiny suggest this may have been a happy accident, no pun intended. He resigned in November 2004, “due to personal circumstances.” (The fact of Stickler not being nominated to replace him until September 2005—nearly a year later—makes the rest of this article redundant to the thinking man.)

The timing of his resignation suggests something more than a desire to roll around naked in his millions and ride bareback at the ranch. His notice came on the heels of CBS’s 60 Minutes disclosure that MSHA had been granting no-bid, single-source contracts. (These were back in the pre-Halliburton days, when that was still illegal.) The companies awarded included two with direct ties to Lauriski.

Additional scandals began to see the light. There was the firing of whistleblower Jack Spadaro, who charged the Bush admin and MSHA with whitewashing a report on a huge coal slurry spill that happened in 2000, and interfering with the investigation of that spill. Lauriski’s administration had longstanding arguments with the United Mine Workers of America over safety regs, the largest point of contention being a Bush administration proposal to change coal-dust testing regulations.

During Lauriski’s tenure, MSHA rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners’ jobs safer. These included limiting miners’ exposure to toxic chemicals and limits on underground use of diesel generators underground, considered both a health and fire risk. In an interview, Mr. Lauriski called the cancelled proposals unnecessary. He said the agency had instead concentrated on other measures “we believed were important to pursue.”

This language, for the boring and vaguely psychotic among us who follow such things, is known to have become common among regulatory agencies in general. In September 2004, watchdog organization OMB Watch released an analysis titled The Bush Regulatory Record—A Pattern of Failure. The report examines funding and agenda of four major regulatory agencies, and concludes that “the Bush administration is continuing to shape regulatory policy in ways that are hostile to the public interest...continues to abandon work on documented public health, safety and environmental problems.”

At the end of 2004, the Bush administration had withdrawn a record 90 agenda items from EPA priories, most of them related to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The FDA withdrew 62 items, including a tracking system to notify patients who received contaminated blood. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pulled 31 proposals, and OSHA removed 24. Coupled with these cuts of course is the matter of defunding.

The administration’s defense was quite similar to Lauriski’s: that it was shifting resources to other priorities. But even the benchmarks which remained were largely unmet, with between 70 and 75% left languishing on desks or in drawers at these regulatory agencies.

The accident at Sago, like all workplace accidents, was preventable. But even a conscientious mining company is left wide open to massive mistakes in safety practices if the regulatory agencies responsible for workplace safety are corrupted by money-hungry industry leaders. When corporations reach the size that they have, and are allowed engulf the political institutions designed to keep them in check, people die.

 

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Mine Shaft
Undermining mine safety
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