The hidden environmental consequences of 9/11.
What America can learn from its Muslims.
The White House hasn't learned any of them.
Will Digital Kill the Radio Star?
Your radio may not survive.
No Laughing Matter.
Bush is eager to break longshore workers' union.
Low on Energy
Will the administration bail out puttering power producers?
Bush is to blame for worsening mine safety.
Shock to the System
A growing indigenous and people's movement in Bolivia.
In Person: Evo Morales
BOOKS: Rescuing Ground Zero from the developers.
The Worst of Times
BOOKS: The Future of U.S. Capitalism is now.
Where's the Ecstasy?
FILM: The smarminess of 24 Hour Party People.
At one bar in Jerusalem, there is no intifada and no occupation.
August 19, 2002
Action, Not Words
Bush is to blame for worsening mine safety.
On August 5, President Bush met with the “Quecreek Nine,” the miners whose rescue from a Pennsylvania coal mine captivated the nation in July. Bush praised the miners and rescue workers: “What took place here in Pennsylvania,” he said, “really represents the best of our country, what I call the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation.”
Bush said nothing, however, about coal mine safety. Perhaps that’s because his administration has done all it can to dismantle the safeguards meant to prevent coal miners from dying on the job.
Since taking office in January 2001, Bush has proposed mine safety budget cuts, halted regulatory improvements and reduced enforcement efforts. Mine safety advocates say the effects of those moves are now becoming clear: Last year, 42 workers died in U.S. coal mines, the third straight year that coal mining fatalities have increased. So far this year, 18 coal miners have died on the job.
Last year’s total jumped significantly in September, when an explosion at a Jim Walter Resources mine in Brookwood, Alabama, killed 13. That blast was the worst coal mining disaster in nearly two decades. “When you look at all of this, it tells you that there is something wrong with mine safety in this country,” says Joe Main of the United Mine Workers of America. “This is a reversal of a long-standing trend toward safer coal mines.”
Coal mining has long ranked as the nation’s most dangerous occupation. In the early 1900s, it was common for 1,500 or more miners to die every year in the nation’s coalfields. As recently as 1968, more than 300 died in a year’s time. And that doesn’t include those who died a slow death from black lung disease after they left the mines. In 1969, under pressure from striking miners in West Virginia, Congress passed the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. Within little more than a decade, annual coal mine fatalities dropped to fewer than 100.
But for the law to work, the government has to enforce it, and every indication says the Bush administration won’t. Under Bush, the Department of Labor has halted work on more than a dozen new mine safety regulations. The proposals, all made during the Clinton administration, concern issues that range from training requirements to mine ventilation plans to accident investigations.
In February, Bush also proposed to cut the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s overall budget and slash the agency’s resources for coal mine safety enforcement. The White House explained the proposals this way: “The enforcement strategy in 2003 will be an integrated approach that links all actions to preventing occupational injuries and illnesses.”
Dave Lauriski, a longtime coal industry official named by Bush to run the MSHA, bragged to an industry group that his agency’s regulatory agenda “is quite a bit shorter than some past agendas.” Lauriski insists such remarks don’t mean that his agency will cut down on enforcement.
But before last year’s Alabama explosion, Jim Walters Resources had been cited repeatedly for violating rules meant to prevent explosions—and MSHA appears to have done little to make the mine operator clean up its act.
At the Quecreek Mine southwest of Pittsburgh, the nine miners were trapped when they accidentally drilled into an adjacent, abandoned mine that had filled with water. The water poured into the active mine, flooding it and trapping the miners 240 feet underground.
Company officials and state regulators have blamed inaccurate maps that incorrectly depicted the distance between the active and abandoned mine workings.
But already, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has found that state regulators had warnings in 1999 the maps were inaccurate, yet allowed the mining to continue anyway. MSHA has known for years that many mine maps are not accurate, and has done little to address what experts say is a problem wherever coal is mined.
The good news is that problems with the nation’s mine safety enforcement have caught the attention of Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virginia), for example, has restored the money that Bush sought to cut from the MSHA budget. In July, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) kicked off hearings to investigate problems with the nation’s coal mine safety enforcement. “This year, the number of mine fatalities is poised to be even higher than last year’s unacceptable rate,” Kennedy said. “These are the tragically predictable consequences of the backlog of necessary mine inspections. This administration has consistently failed to enforce policies that keep miners safe.”
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