THIRTEEN miners were trapped by an explosion in an Upshur County coal mine early Monday. One was brought out alive late Tuesday and remains in critical condition. At midnight Tuesday, false reports of a rescue sent joy rippling through waiting families — then hope for the 12 others finally was crushed early Wednesday morning. The three hours that families mistakenly believed there were a dozen survivors were followed by unspeakable heartbreak.
But the bitter truth is that this tragedy was not a surprise — both because the mine had a disturbing safety record, and because the Bush administration in Washington has been undercutting mine safety.
The exact cause of the explosion is yet to be determined. But the Sago mine had three roof falls since International Coal Group finalized its purchase in November. Altogether, the mine had a dozen roof falls during the last six months. The mine has an injury rate three times that of similar pits across the country. Last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration fined then-owner Anker West Virginia Mining Co. more than $24,000 for 200 alleged violations. MSHA issued 46 citations, including 18 considered “serious and substantial” for October through December. The company’s failings included violations regarding emergency escapeways and pre-shift safety exams. From July to September, MSHA found 70 violations, including 42 serious and substantial ones.
This mine operated amid growing laxity toward mine safety. After the Jim Walters No. 5 disaster in Alabama in September 2001, MSHA’s own internal review found that its inspectors did not make sure safety violations were fixed.
In October 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office confirmed such problems were widespread and that MSHA is not as effective as it could be. The agency responsible for guarding the safety of miners failed to ensure timely inspections of mine ventilation and roof support systems every six months and failed to ensure that problems were corrected promptly.
The Bush administration has taken a callous attitude toward the lives of coal miners. It has proposed cuts to MSHA’s budget and increases in the amount of coal dust miners can breathe. Its first MSHA director, Dave Lauriski, promoted “cooperative” enforcement of safety rules at the expense of actual enforcement. At least Lauriski came from a safety background within the industry. The current nominee for the job, Marion County native Richard Stickler, is an industry manager with questionable qualifications. He ran mines with injury rates twice the national average.
Coal mining does not kill as many diggers as it did in the 20th century. Today, it is a bad year when 10 or 12 or 20 miners die in West Virginia, compared to 1907 when 362 people died in a single event at Monongah. But just because they are fewer, does not make a dozen deaths any less tragic, especially if they were preventable.
The demand for coal is currently high, and so is the price. That creates an incentive for companies to return to marginal mines that weren’t worth running in leaner times. It creates an incentive to reopen mines with safety problems and to try to scratch some profit out of them. It also creates the incentive to cut costs, take shortcuts, to err on the side of danger instead of caution. To guard against these impulses, the nation needs a tough and fair-minded MSHA. Until the nation gets serious about enforcing safety rules, miners and their families will continue to suffer to satisfy the nation’s energy appetite.