In The News
As coal mining deaths mount, so does proof of industry indifference to workers
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
As the death toll rose to 29 in West Virginia’s coal mining disaster, the worst in decades, as the community buried its dead, evidence also mounted that much of this human tragedy could have been avoided in this always dangerous profession. The drive for corporate profits at this mining company revealed practices throughout the industry that led to these deaths and now has spurred in-depth investigations.
Cynicism circles the new attention. Many union members and West Virginia families fear the result will be a flurry of emotional concern followed by the same entrenched preference for profits over people's survival, because that is what happened after past disasters.
The Obama administration will be under the gun to prove a difference this time.
It has already brought managerial improvements and new investigative attention to the mining indstry but even Obama’s secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, lamented in interviews that the federal laws and fines are not tough enough and the nation still needed to develop better rules and work on long delayed congressional action to rein in the lingering behavior of private companies.
The private push for profits combined with strong lobbying by the mining industry and weaknesses in federal law have short-circuited mining improvements. Until existing technology is employed for worker safety and takes precedence over the bottom line, the deaths and injuries will continue and perhaps increase, experts say.
The bulk of evidence makes that judgement unavoidable, not political.
The non-union Upper Big Branch mine, where the accident occurred, has led the nation in the dangerous levels of methane gas (which many attribute to causing the explosion and certainly prevented rescue operations for days unti the mine could be ventilated). The mine had been fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment, yet little improvement had occurred and the number of violations indicated that it was easier for the company to pay up than to change for the better.
In the last 22 years, Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, has committed over 1,000 serious health and safety violations. Last year alone, noted AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a former mine worker himself, “Massey Mine, and its CEO, Don Blankenship, have been cited for over 450 safety violations in this mine. Massey paid over $1 million in fines in the past year alone – and has failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more in fines that it is contesting.” Those fines and many more were imposed even during the Bush administration but Massey was allowed to skate.
Former mining companies CEOs were regularly put in charge of mine safety bureaucracy from 2000 to 2006, a procedure detailed in a companion Workers Memorial Day article at milwaukeelabor.org.
Last year, in a Tea Party rally, Blankenship attacked the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and said efforts to ensure miner safety were "as silly as global warming."
Noted Trumka: “This incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct. Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line.”
Investigations support Trumka indictment.
The disaster is likely to bring new focus on legislation backed by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), to strengthen mine safety laws, which were long dormant but updated in some measure in 2006. In a case of irony or chutzpah, the mining industry opposes Miller’s proposal saying it might delay the $1 billion in improvements it agreed to after that 2006 Sage mining tragedy. What the mining industry ads fail to reveal is that those Sago safety reforms were focused almost exclusively on sustaining trapped miners long enough to rescue them, not on preventing underground explosions – and only occurred because of human tragedy and congressional pressure.
Kentucky lawyer and safety advocate Tony Oppegard told the Associate Press that the federal safety agency needs to push Congress to mandate six inspections of underground mines each year, rather than four. Other preventive measures offered include requiring coal companies to pump out the methane gas before mining a coal deposit, which many feel would have averted the most recent disaster, and conducting more accurate testing to determine the flammability of conveyer belts and other mine equipment — the most common causes of mine fires.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has discovered that modern mining equipment spits out more coal dust, which can intensify a small explosion into a deadly blast.
Yet without regulatory teeth from Congress, OSHA and other investigators can only recommend to the industry, not insist. The ball in now in Congress’ court, though the tragedies could continue in the mines themselves unless Congress is goaded to act.