Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Getting the Government Out of the Way

I wonder what the economic libertarians think of this:

Time and again over the past four years, federal mining inspectors documented the same litany of problems at central West Virginia's Sago Mine: mine roofs that tended to collapse without warning. Faulty or inadequate tunnel supports. A dangerous buildup of flammable coal dust.
Yesterday, the mine's safety record came into sharp focus as officials searched for explanations for Monday's underground explosion. That record, as reflected in dozens of federal inspection reports, shows a succession of operators struggling to overcome serious, long-standing safety problems, some of which could be part of the investigation into the cause of the explosion that trapped 13 miners.

In the past two years, the mine was cited 273 times for safety violations, of which about a third were classified as "significant and substantial," according to documents compiled by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Many were for problems that could contribute to accidental explosions or the collapse of mine tunnels, records show.

In addition, 16 violations logged in the past eight months were listed as "unwarrantable failures," a designation reserved for serious safety infractions for which the operator had either already been warned, or which showed "indifference or extreme lack of care," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA senior adviser. That is a very high number, and it is usually indicative of a very poor safety record," Oppegard said.

Sago, a relatively small mine that listed 145 employees last year, was operated by Anker West Virginia Mining Co. until two months ago, when it was purchased by International Coal Group Inc. "Much of the bad history you're talking about was beyond our reach and ability to control," company chief executive Bennett K. Hatfield said yesterday. "But there's been dramatic improvement, and I think regulatory agencies will confirm that."

In the hours after Monday's explosion, Eugene Kitts, a company vice president for mining, said the 46 alleged violations described in MSHA's most recent inspection report were all minor. "We addressed them," he said.

But in MSHA's reports, 18 of the 46 most recent violations were listed as "significant and substantial." Among the problems cited: inadequate safeguards against the collapse of the mine roof and inadequate ventilation to guard against the buildup of deadly gases.

Other inspection reports over the past two years fault the mine for "combustibles," including a buildup of flammable coal dust and a failure to adequately insulate electric wires. Sparks from electrical equipment can ignite coal dust and methane gas, triggering fires and explosions.
The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.

Government documents also show a high rate of injuries and accidents at Sago. Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show. The average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines, MSHA documents show.

Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine's rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions -- but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs as long as 100 feet. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday's explosion.

J. Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, said he was troubled by an apparent spike in accidents and violations that occurred beginning about two years ago.
"The violations are not the worst I've ever seen -- and certainly not the best -- but I'm concerned about the trend and the direction they're going in. It's indication to those running the operation that you've got a problem here."

In the light of this:

UNDER MINED....What's the story behind the story of the tragedy at the Sago Mine? At least part of it is predictable: after George Bush took office in 2001 the Mine Safety and Health Administration was stocked with coal mining executives who were distinctly less interested in mine safety than they should have been. Clara Bingham told the story in "Under Mined," in the January 2005 issue of the Washington Monthly:

Coal executives, threatened by Vice President Al Gore's green background and his pledge to increase taxes on fossil fuels, thought they could get a better deal with the Republicans - when they raised a record $3.8 million dollars for the 2000 federal election, 88 percent went to the GOP. At the annual meeting of the West Virginia Coal Association a few months after Bush's inauguration, the group's director told 150 industry executives, "You did everything you could to elect a Republican president. [Now] you are already seeing in his actions the payback."

....Bush also demonstrated his friendship to industry leaders when he awarded the top job at MSHA to an executive with Utah's Energy West Mining Company, David Lauriski, whose top two deputies would also be recruited from mining companies. The woman who would become their boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, is the wife of Kentucky's Republican senator Mitch McConnell, a long time political ally of coal companies.

Bingham's story is primarily about Jack Spadaro, who was hounded out of his job as superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy after he became a whistleblower on an investigation into a coal waste leak in Kentucky. Read the whole thing.

Well, we can see that at least a few somebodies at the MSHA were checking on the place, but when the department and the administration are run by people more sympathetic to management than workers, than, well, things happen:

Manchin said the state would investigate the cause of the explosion, the miscommunication and the mine's numerous safety and health violations last year. "We're going to look into this," Manchin vowed.

John Bennett, whose father Jim Bennett was one of the victims and had been due to retire in April, complained that his father would "tell me how unsafe the mine is."

Problems at the mine had been "going on for months ... and they still send men in," Bennett told NBC's "Today" show, adding that he felt that if the mine owner had allowed workers to unionize the violations wouldn't have happened.

They may not have unions there, may hate them in fact, but, hey, at least by voting for W, West Virginia families made sure the Bible wouldn't be taken out of their homes by those bad old liberals.

MyDD has more on what you get by voting Republican.

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