THE terrible story from West Virginia that blanketed the nation’s television screens last week is a further reminder of the cost of corrupt and incompetent government. There is virtually no one who will argue that the Sago Mine was operating at an acceptable level of safety.
So why didn’t somebody do something? The answer is directly attributable to individuals in whose hands the safety of miners and other workers has been placed by the Bush administration and the prevailing White House mindset on any issue in which business interests differ from those of workers.
A year ago, President Bush’s appointed head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, David Lauriski, resigned, citing family reasons. His resignation came shortly after a Labor Department Inspector General report confirmed CBS’ “60 Minutes” allegations that his agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts. Two of the contract winners had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants.
But Lauriski is best remembered at MSHA for his attempt to push through a change in coal-dust rules that he had lobbied for as a senior executive with Energy West Mining Co. of Utah. Since the change uniquely benefited only his former employer, it was opposed by not only the United Mine Workers but also by mine operators other than Energy West.
Meanwhile, Lauriski sided with the mine operators on a host of other regulatory changes detrimental to worker safety. According to The New York Times, MSHA under his direction “rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners’ jobs safer, including steps to limit miners’ exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.”
It took a full 10 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.
The administration has curtailed mine safety efforts. Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “What we have seen that is different with the Bush administration is that they put a little more emphasis on working with mining companies.”
One way of working with the companies is to cut fines. Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO estimates that the average fine per violation levied against Anker Group, the company that operated Sago Mine, was about $247 — little more than a minor expense of doing business.
A second means of cutting back on 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. Subsequently, Congress approved a 1 percent across-the-board cut to all agencies, reducing MSHA’s budget by an additional $2.8 million and leaving it about $10 million below the previous year, after adjusting for inflation. As a result, the cut in mine inspections will be even deeper than the level proposed by the White House.
At the time Lauriski was going out the door, a new Bush appointee as acting director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — an agency responsible for the workplace safety of most Americans who don’t work in mines — was coming in. Jonathan L. Snare brings credentials to OSHA that should give pause to any working family watching television coverage of the Sago Mine disaster.
Before arriving at the Labor Department, Snare was a lawyer and lobbyist in the Texas firm of Jackson and Walker, which boasted that it specialized in, among other things, “appropriate discipline of employees” and “union-avoidance campaigns.” Among his clients was Metabolife International, the leading provider of the weight-loss supplement Ephedra, which was eventually banned after the Food and Drug Administration received numerous reports of deaths. Both Metabolife and one of its founders have pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Twelve million Americans had been using the supplement before the FDA action.
While Snare’s lobbying activity involved him in some health and safety issues — not on the side of consumers or workers — he seems to have spent much time on politics. He served as vice president of the Republican National Lawyers Committee and general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas.
There seems to be no end to the number of Michael Brown “act-a-likes” to be found in the Bush administration. The corruption that is at the base of the remarkable fundraising machine assembled by this White House and allies in Congress drives an ever-increasing wedge between the interests of ordinary Americans, such as the miners who died in West Virginia, and the special interests currently fueling the good life in Washington.
Lilly, a longtime congressional staff aide, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.