Copyrighted material


by Michael Winship

Expect More Coal Miner Deaths Unless Fast Reforms

I have never been deep in a coalmine -- unless you count metaphorically -- and harbor no aspirations in that hellish direction. Some years back, however, while working for the Smithsonian, I did travel more than half a mile down to the bottom of a working, Morton-Thiokol salt mine near Lake Erie.

The scant measures we undertake to protect miners and other workers in dangerous industries are growing smaller

The trip was taken to examine a neutrino detector; a vast, underground pool of incredibly pure water lined with sensors designed to pick up the decay of a proton. Such a discovery, scientists believed, could help establish a grand unified field theory of physics, a theory tying together all the known forces of the universe -- except that weird thing Samantha on "Bewitched" does with her nose.

It was incredibly beautiful down there -- when you shone a light into the soot-covered rockface, underneath, all was milky white and translucent -- pure crystal. It reminded me of that F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, "The Diamond as Big as The Ritz."

But before we made the descent, we were given a safety lecture and equipped with special gear: a hardhat with lamp, steel toecaps for our shoes, and a breathing device. When cracked open, the apparatus created a catalytic reaction that converted deadly carbon monoxide gas into carbon dioxide. However, we were told, the heat generated by the reaction designed to save our lives might critically scorch our lungs. And then we were given a round brass tag with a number to wear, in case we were otherwise unidentifiable.

Lesson: mines are deadly, dark and deep. And, as we were so tragically reminded with the beginning of the New Year, coalmines are the most dangerous kind in America. Twelve men died in an explosion and fire in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia.

Issues swirl around the coal industry. Tearing coal from the earth wrecks the environment; burning coal -- half our electricity still is generated by it -- contributes to global warming. Since the Iraq war began and with oil prices high, the demand for coal is up. Its value has almost doubled, increasing the urge to extract every bit possible.

Miners work under hot, cramped, claustrophobic conditions, often barely able to stand as they dig. In addition to accidents, they suffer from black lung and other respiratory ailments, heat stroke, hearing loss, joint and muscle disease.

Sago is a non-union mine. Had the United Mine Workers of America been represented there, all things being equal, safety procedures and violations might have been more closely monitored by the union and the workers would have a stronger voice in day-to-day operations.

For we've learned that in the last two years the Sago Mine has been hit with more than 270 safety violations, 120 of which were deemed "significant and substantial." In 2005, nine were issued for failing to implement a proper ventilation plan, seven for improper "pre-shift" safety examinations. One inspector cited a "high degree of negligence... an unwarrantable failure to comply with a mandatory standard."

The incidence of injuries at Sago was twice the national rate. Last year, parts of the mine were closed on 18 occasions for extensive safety problems, including many roof collapses. Tony Oppegard, a former state prosecutor on mining issues in Kentucky, told USA Today that this was a far higher closure rate than normal and should been "a red flag." As one journalist wrote, if Sago "was a plane, the FAA would have grounded it."

Instead, in the two years before the explosion, the owners of the Sago mine were fined a grand total of $33,600, of which they paid $23,896, merely the cost of doing business in an industry that generates hundreds of millions in revenues. Indeed, USA Today discovered, "The nation's coal mines have been required to pay only a fraction of the federal fines imposed after deadly accidents since 1999... The Mine Safety and Health Administration has levied $9.1 million in fines in the past seven years against companies cited for safety violations following mine fatalities. About 28 percent of that amount has been collected."

Yes, it's safer than it was 100 years ago, when hundreds died annually; according to government statistics, the current coal mining accident rate is just barely above that for national workplace injuries. But the tragedy at Sago and the events that preceded it are a side effect powerfully reflective of so many cozy, familiar relationships among business interests, Congress, and the current administration. The revolving door rotates and the bucks pass ad infinitum.

As the New York Times editorialized, it's "the latest example of how workers' risks are balanced against company profits in an industry with pervasive political clout and patronage inroads in government regulatory agencies."

In a letter calling for hearings sent to Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee (and one of the leading contenders to replace Tom DeLay as majority leader), Congressmen George Miller and Major Owens noted that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has been downsized by 170 positions since President Bush took office and that the agency's funding has been slashed.

"The Committee should investigate whether the Bush Administration has employed people with proper regulatory experience in leadership positions at MSHA," the letter reads. "Many senior MSHA officials have come directly from the mining industry, raising concerns about their ability to effectively oversee the industry and protect its workers."

Add to this list such pro-extractive industry, administration officials as Vice President Cheney, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the former deputy interior secretary and Jack Abramoff crony J. Steven Griles, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (Chao is married to Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, a coal industry favorite. Mining mogul Robert E. Murray once told a group of MSHA inspectors, "Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and last time I checked he was sleeping with your boss.").

The congressmen cite a 2005 AFL-CIO report that "at MSHA, 17 standards to improve safety and health for miners have been withdrawn since President Bush took office, including the Air Quality, Chemical Substances and Respiratory standards... For the most part at MSHA, those standards that have been proposed during the Bush Administration favor industry by moving to roll back existing protections. There are no pending standards to protect miners from hazards on their job."

The oil, gas, mining and electric utilities industries contributed about $50 million to the Bush and other Republican federal campaigns in 2000 and another $39.5 million in 2004.

Much can be done beyond House and Senate hearings, the first of which are due to begin this week. Overall, experts say, innovations in mine safety lag far behind those in the aviation and nuclear power industries. For example, wireless technology exists -- and already is in use in some mines here and abroad -- that could allow trapped miners to communicate with the outside, even after fire or explosions. Installation of such systems should be made mandatory.

Currently, the Mine Safety and Health Administration inspects mines but also investigates accidents, setting up situations where it sits in judgement of its own regulations. Mine company representatives are allowed to sit in on the questioning of miners, creating the potential for intimidation. A separate agency should be mandated to conduct accident probes, much as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates aircraft accidents independently from the FAA.

The Sago mine recently was bought by the International Coal Group, which in 2004 had revenues of more than $136 million. Its chairman is bankruptcy takeover specialist Wilbur Ross, billionaire and ex-husband of that madcap, former New York State lieutenant governor, Betsy McCaughey. Just last month, Ross took International Coal public, raising at least $230 million in its IPO.

Mr. Ross, in the past a Democratic fundraiser, often has worked closely with organized labor to make his purchase of distressed companies pay off for all concerned. Although it's unheard of for a company to invite labor inside, in this case, it might behoove him to at least meet with representatives of the United Mine Workers to explore potential common interests. Stranger things have happened.

In that January 5 editorial, the New York Times wrote, "The dozen miners deserve to be memorialized with fresh scrutiny of the state of mine safety regulation and a resurrection of political leadership willing to look beyond Big Coal to the interests of those who risk their lives in the mines."

The legendary mine union activist Mother Jones put it more succinctly: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

© 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   January 31, 2006   (

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