Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unnecessary Tragedies: Sago

The disaster at the Sago Mine is under investigation, which means that no one is quite sure what happened, but enough information about the mine and its operation has surfaced that it appears the tragedy didn't have to happen. The NY Times article today lays out the problems endemic to the mining industry in general and this mine in particular.

Once every few years, a disaster in a tiny Appalachian town reminds the nation that coal mining remains a dangerous occupation. The cause of the latest incident, which claimed 12 lives at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, is unknown and under investigation.

But certain problems are endemic in the industry: old safety equipment, lax enforcement and a get-along culture in which safety complaints are discouraged, according to an examination of government and court records and interviews this past week and over the years with hundreds of miners, dozens of mine inspectors and mine safety experts.

...Throughout the industry, the oxygen canisters, the telephones, the ventilation equipment and almost every other piece of safety equipment are nearly identical to those used more than 20 years ago. Some mines still extract coal with explosives, a technique that has changed little in 100 years.

Mines are routinely cited for violating federal safety rules. Federal inspections occur at least four times a year.

For some mining operations, paying fines is less expensive than adhering to the rules, miners say. And a few mines do not bother to pay at all. Since 2000, 84 mines have not paid any citation levied against them that exceeded $10,000, according to federal records. Indeed, miners say that they are sometimes forced to accept unsafe working conditions in return for employment.

...Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety, health and human resources at the National Mining Association, said it was not the responsibility of coal operators to develop new safety equipment. "We're not in the self-rescuer manufacturing business," Mr. Watzman said.

Federal inspectors almost never close a mine even when they find repeated instances of life-threatening safety problems.

The Sago Mine had 202 safety violations last year, a number that included 16 blatant violations that were considered immediate hazards to miners' safety. Like Sago, six other underground mines in West Virginia have 100 to 150 employees, according to federal records. Not one of the six had a similar blatant violation last year, according to federal mine records. Sago has had 14 major roof falls since June. Its injury rate last year was three times the national average.
[Emphasis added]

Why the Sago Mine was allowed to continue operations in the face of "16 blatant violations that were considered immediate hazards to miners' safety" is one of the issues that should be investigated thoroughly. But what should also be investigated, perhaps by Congress, is why this approach to 'mine safety' is allowed in an industry which is allegedly subject to federal regulation. Workers, whether unionized or not, should not have to choose between having a job and safe working conditions.

In other words, the federal agency in charge of mine safety and operations should also be investigated. I would be interested in seeing what the problem is: too much "Brownie" or too much "Abramoff."


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