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How Not to Prepare for a Mine Disaster

How Not to Prepare for a Mine Disaster
Funerals conclude today for the 12 West Virginia miners who died January 2 in an underground mine explosion; the sole survivor remains in a medically-induced coma . Work is now beginning to determine how and why this tragic event occurred. Federal investigators began their probe of the Sago mine over the weekend and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) declared yesterday that officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will be called before a Senate Appropriations Committee this month. It is vital to understand what took place at Sago in order to prevent another similar tragedy, and to be prepared when one does occur. To do so is not to point fingers, as some critics disingenuously suggest. To be clear: the Bush administration’s budget cuts for mine safety did not cause the West Virginia accident, nor was it President Bush’s fault that an explosion occurred. But federal officials unquestionably share responsibility for the safety of our nation’s mine workers, and the record shows they are shirking their commitment.

IGNORING WARNING SIGNS AT MINE: The Sago coal mine was issued 208 safety citations by the MSHA in 2005, a fourfold increase over 2004. Nearly half of the citations were "serious and substantial," such as roof-falls. That pattern "worries safety experts, who say it raises serious questions about mine management – and the efficacy of government inspections." Many argue it should have spurred more decisive action. Said former MSHA Administrator Davitt McAteer, "When the numbers are going in the wrong direction, management has not been doing its job. It’s not the worst mine record, but when you’ve got three times the national accident rate, something is wrong." "The mine should have simply been closed," said Jack Spadaro, a former MSHA inspector who was granted federal whistle-blower status four years ago.

INSIGNIFICANT FINES: Despite the numerous problems, the biggest single fine at Sago "was $440, about 0.0004 percent of the $110 million net profit reported last year by the mine’s current owner, International Coal Group Inc." This is not an isolated problem. "The number of major fines over $10,000 has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2001," a Knight-Ridder analysis found, adding that "less than half of the fines levied between 2001 and 2003 – about $3 million – have been paid." Last week, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan defended the White House record: "In fact this administration proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Administration rules." This apparently isn’t true. While Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has spoken of raising MSHA penalties over the last two years, "the administration never actually submitted a proposal to raise those fines."

WEAKENED SAFETY REGULATIONS: Mine safety standards have been rolled back over the last five years. "Under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn, and the agency began a series of high-profile ‘cooperative alliance’ agreements with industry to promote safety through education, posters and other voluntary programs." The administration has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure, according to the AFL-CIO. Two years ago, the administration was urged to reverse this trend. The Government Accountability Office in 2003 faulted MSHA for "failing to follow through when it found violations," and said the agency did "not provide adequate oversight" to ensure that inspectors were enforcing compliance. The Labor Department Inspector General found similar problems  in 2002.

OVERSIGHT AGENCY STARVED: Another means of weakening enforcement is cutting back on inspectors. Last February, President Bush asked Congress to appropriate $280 million for MSHA, cutting the number of full time positions in the agency by 146. That proposal was approved by Congress just before Christmas on narrow votes in both Houses. Under President Bush, MSHA leadership also "advocated a less confrontational style and gave inspectors a less-intimidating job title: ‘compliance assistance specialists .’"  Former MSHA director Davitt McAteer calls today’s agency a "paper tiger."

PUBLIC KEPT IN THE DARK: Under Bush, the MSHA has eliminated or scaled back programs that "allowed public access to records related to safety performance and accident investigations." For instance, the Washington Post noted, the MSHA "halted the release of notes from mine inspections, which the agency had routinely released under the Freedom of Information Act for a quarter-century." According to union officials and former agency employees, the administration also "shifted many routine accident investigations into closed-door proceedings, in some cases denying entry even to union officials and lawyers representing injured mineworkers."

FAILED LEADERSHIP: In 2001, President Bush appointed David Lauriski to head the MSHA. A former mining executive, Lauriski spent the next years rescinding "more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners’ jobs safer, including steps to limit miners’ exposure to toxic chemicals." Lauriski resigned in scandal in late 2004 shortly after it was found that the agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts to several firms, two of which had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants. It took a full ten months for the White House to even nominate a replacement for Lauriski and the Senate has yet to act on his confirmation leaving the agency without a permanent director now for 14 months.

MINE RESCUE SYSTEM FLAWS IGNORED: In what the New York Times calls "perhaps the most heartbreaking question raised by a heartbreaking accident," experts are concerned that some of the miners, who survived at least ten hours after the explosion, might have been saved if rescue efforts had begun earlier. Federal law requires mines to have two rescue teams available, "but does not require mines to have their own rescue teams as long as another team can arrive on site within two hours." The first rescue teams in Sago "did not enter the mine until more than 11 hours after the explosion." This precise scenario had been a concern for years. The Charleston Gazette analysis found concerns over the last decade that the mine rescue system "is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms." Yet in 2002, in direct contravention to recommendations of the Clinton administration in 1999, then-MSHA director Dave Lauriski "halted work on revising MSHA’s 15-year old mine rescue regulation."