Rumors of enforcement


Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 11:28 p.m.
Serious questions should be raised about the culpability of the mining company and the federal "watchdog" agency.
Sun subscribers woke up Wednesday morning to a large, hopeful, bold-faced headline proclaiming: "They're Alive."
But if they turned on the morning news, they would discover that, in fact, the contrary was true: That 12 of 13 miners trapped for more than 40 hours in a West Virginia coal mine were found dead, apparent victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Morning newspapers across the country contained similar inaccurate accounts, as reporters at the scene of the accident got swept up in the euphoria of the moment; apparently the result of overheard but misunderstood cell phone conversations.
"The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors," International Coal Group CEO Ben Hatfield told reporters on Wednesday morning. "That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center. It quickly got out of control."
It would be hours before hard, cold truth would replace hopeful rumors. It was a cruel irony that family members of the trapped miners were given reason to rejoice, only to be told several hours later that they had no cause for joy.
No doubt, the reporting of rumor as news will receive much attention in the coming days. But of more significant import, of course, is the question of what happened at the Sago Mine. What caused the explosion that led to the entrapment? How and why did those miners die?
And what culpability should be assigned, not only to the company that owns the mine, but to the federal "watchdog" agency that was created to enforce health and safety standards in mining operations?
Much is not yet known. For one thing, in the Bush-era, the federal government no longer routinely publishes its mine inspection findings.
What is known is that, last year, the Sago coal mine operation was cited 208 times by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for health and safety violations, a significant increase over its 68 citations in 2004.
It is also known that 16 workers were injured on the job at Sago in 2005, twice as many as were injured the year before.
It is known that International Coal Group, which reported $465 million in operating revenues in the third quarter of 2005, was liable to only about $24,000 in fines for those federal citations.
And it is known that in addition to the 208 federal violations, the Sago Mine was cited 144 times last year by the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety & Training, up from 74 the year before.
On Wednesday morning, the MSHA announced it would investigate "all aspects of the accident and response." But perhaps while MSHA is investigating the cause of the accident, Congress ought to begin an investigation of MSHA to determine if that agency is still performing its watchdog role.
Under President Bush's watch, worker safety has not seemingly been a high regulatory priority. MSHA's workforce has reportedly been cut by 170 positions. In recent years, the administration has proposed no new mine-safety regulations, and has watered down or abandoned several existing rules.
For instance, a requirement that mines have at least two exit paths was revoked "in light of resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities," according to an Office of Management and Budget study.
Bush's first MSHA director, David Lauriski, was himself a former mining industry executive, who proceeded to substitute by-the-book enforcement in favor of "voluntary" MSHA-industry partnerships. In light of the Sago disaster, it is fair to question the effectiveness of such relationships.
In the wake of the tragedy at the Sago Mine there will be an outcry over the media's reporting. But there should also be a demand for public accountability.
As Jeff Goodell, author of the book "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," puts it in a column that appears directly below this editorial: "Coal mining remains a dirty and dangerous business."
Ultimately it is the business of the federal government to protect the health and safety of the miners who every day do a tough, dangerous and dirty job so that America can keep its lights on. It is not the business of MSHA to protect the profit margins of the mining companies.

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