Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Sago mining disaster

Today everyone is rightfully upset over the emotional rollercoaster that the families of the Sago mining disaster victims were put through last night. Our 24-hour, you-are-there-when-it-happens news culture spread the mistaken belief that 12 of the 13 miners survived the disaster all over the country before it was confirmed that only one survivor was found.

But what should upset people even more is the way the Bush administration has neglected coal mining safety in recent years.

According to Bloomberg:

Federal authorities issued 21 citations last year for a build-up of combustible materials at the West Virginia mine where 12 men died, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

And yet these citations were ignored. Why? Because they had no teeth.

...penalties for OSHA or MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received last year by the Sago mine was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. At that rate, it’s hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything.

Meanwhile, it is amazing that these mines still get inspected at all considering the political climate in Washington these days.

According to an AFL-CIO analysis, the Bush administration cut 170 positions from federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure.

Then, of course, there is the inevitable Republican cronyism - a Bush administration specialty!

Last September, Bush rewarded the coal industry by placing coal industry veteran Richard Stickler in charge of MSHA. Stickler spent about 30 years as a coal company manager with Beth Energy. Mines managed by Stickler were marked by worker injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data cited by the United Mine Workers union.

It wasn’t always like this, though. As Think Progress reminds us:

The mining explosion should call attention to the Bush administration’s inadequate enforcement of federal mining safety regulations. Mining safety in the U.S. has improved dramatically since the Mining Safety and Health Act was signed in 1977. By the time that President Clinton signed the International Labor Organization’s Convention 176 concerning safety and health in mines, mining deaths dropped from 425 in 1970 to 85 in 2000.

But then West Virginia coal firms raised $275,000 for Bush/Cheney, and since then the citations for safety violations have become meaningless.

Phil Smith, the communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, said that while citations have been issued, the fines assessed for safety violations are too small to force large corporations to make improvements. “The problem with the current laws is enforcement.”

Hmmmmmm. Enforcing the laws. Kind of like upholding the Constitution. That is not something that this administration is particularly good at.

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