John J. Sweeney and Cecil Roberts
Eight hours after a horrific blast rocked the Sago No. 1 mine in West Virginia on Jan. 2, George Junior Hamner scrawled a note to his wife and daughter expressing his love for them and the desperation he and his fellow miners felt as they struggled for fresh air deep beneath the surface of the ground. Sadly, it was Hamnerís final message to his loved ones as he and 11 of his co-workers succumbed to the toxic environment in which they were trapped. The tragedy at Sago captured the nationís attention and brought renewed attention to the safety regulations that protect our nationís coal miners. But nearly four months later, little has been done to shield our nationís coal miners from another tragedy like Sago.
Friday was Workers Memorial Day, a time to mourn those workers, like the miners at Sago, who have been killed on the job. But as we honor those weíve lost, we must also recommit to protecting workers and to do everything in our power to make sure that they can return home to their loved ones safe and sound after a hard dayís work.
With 50 percent of our nationís electrical power being produced by coal, youíd think the safety of the workers extracting the coal would be a priority for our country. But the Bush administration has failed to enhance health and safety measures for coal miners. Since 2001, the coal enforcement staff at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration ó the body charged with protecting miners ó has been cut by 190 positions and the coal enforcement budget reduced by 10 percent in real dollars.
The Bush administration killed 17 MSHA safety rules, including measures on mine rescue teams and emergency oxygen supplies, which could have saved lives at Sago. The administration also weakened mine ventilation standards and signed off on the use of conveyor belt shafts as a means to provide ventilation in mines, despite the increased risk of carrying smoke and fire through the belt shafts. In fact, using these shafts as an airway may have been behind the deaths in one of the events following the Sago tragedy.
Part of the problem is that the foxes are running the henhouse at MSHA. Officials from the mining industry fill virtually all the top-level positions at MSHA. President Bushís appointee to head MSHA in his second term, Richard Stickler, is a former mine company executive. Many current MSHA officials have spent their entire careers trying to get around mine safety regulations to increase coal production.
Despite the tragedies at Sago and other mines, itís clear that the administration isnít pursuing meaningful reform, and meanwhile miners are still dying. In April, four coal miners died in separate incidents, pushing the fatality total for the first four months of 2006 higher than the total for all of 2005. And over the last 12-month period, 44 miners have been killed in the nationís mines.
The brave workers who risk their lives to produce much of our nationís electric power deserve much better.
Itís time that Congress passed legislation that requires the immediate adoption of measures that will improve safety in our nationís mines. We must update decades-old communications technology, prohibit the dangerous practice of ventilating working faces with air that passes over conveyor beltlines and improve rapid emergency response in the event of disaster so that miners have a fighting chance to survive. Few know that United Mine Workers mine rescue teams were the first onsite at Sago, not government rescue teams, despite the fact that Sago was not a union mine.
Congress must also require that MSHA enforcement regains its teeth. There should be mandatory minimum penalties for mine safety violations, especially in the case of repeat offenders, up to and including closing mines entirely if thatís what it takes to keep miners safe.
Finally ó and most importantly ó MSHA needs to return to its core mission of protecting the health and safety of miners. Congress must fund MSHA to at least its 2001 levels so there can be proper oversight of our nationís mines.
Testifying before a House panel on mine safety a little more than a month after her husbandís death at Sago, Deborah Hamner told the panel, ďI urge you to do all you can do to make sure our voices are heard.Ē
Itís time that we all make our voices heard. Congress and the administration must enact real reform ó before another tragedy leaves more families mourning the loss of a loved one.
Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO and Roberts is president of the United Mine Workers of America.