Coal Mines and Safety

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This mining accident in West Virginia is, needless to say, a serious tragedy. Even more appalling is the Washington Post‘s report today that the coal mine in question, Sago Mine, had previously been cited some 273 times by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, a third of those “significant and substantial.” 42 workers and contractors have been injured there since 2000. So why didn’t the mine operators heed MSHA’s warnings, or try to fix things? Ah, here we go:

The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.

Right: Sago Mine, on average, paid out less than $100 per violation. That’s not enforcement. That’s not even a slap on the wrist. The mine just folded that $24,000 into the cost of doing business—paying a nominal fee for “significant and substantial” safety violations is presumably cheaper than actually fixing the safety problems in question.

Meanwhile, over the past five years the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been seriously weakened. According to the AFL-CIO’s 2005 Death on the Job report, the White House’s FY2006 budget proposed a $4.9 million cut for MSHA in real dollar terms, and proposed budget freezes for MSHA enforcement programs. Since President Bush took office in 2001, seventeen MSHA safety standards for miners have been withdrawn, including the Air Quality, Chemical Substances and Respiratory standard. And from 2001 to 2004, the top job at MSHA was held by David Lauriski, a coal industry executive, who seemed, shall we say, less than interested in investigating problems. (See this 2002 Mother Jones story for more.)

Obviously those cuts, freezes, and appointments didn’t cause the West Virginia accident. It’s not like this is the president’s “fault”. And, although the statistics are sometimes murky, mine fatalities have decreased over the past few years, so MSHA’s not a total failure.

But the larger picture is the thing to look at. Sago Mine isn’t the only workplace accident that’s ever occurred. According to BLS, in 2003 there were 5,703 workplace deaths, up from 5,575 in 2003, up from 5,534 in 2002, and so on. At the same time, Labor Department inspections have been declining, as budget cuts do their work, and fines for violations are getting lighter and lighter. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2004 “serious” violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act incurred an average fine of only $873. Quite predictably, these trends are all going to converge on very severe accidents where people die, and it would be nice if we could deal with them beforehand, rather than react after the fact.

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We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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