By Kit Smith
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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,