Sunday, February 05, 2006

Deadly Failures

While the State of the US Press (scroll down one post) is certainly not strong, occasionally it does take at least tentative steps towards doing its job. The Washington Post and the New York Times, considered by many as the nation's most respected newspapers, each did editorials on mine safety, or the lack thereof. Yesterday it was the Washington Post, today the New York Times. Of course, it took 16 dead miners since the first of the year to make the subject newsworthy, but at least the issue is getting some ink.

First, yesterday's Washington Post editorial:

SINCE JAN. 1, coal mining accidents have killed 16 men in West Virginia. This unusual wave of misfortune has impelled the governor, Joe Manchin III (D), to halt all operations until every coal mine in the state can be inspected. It should also lead Congress, the administration and the mining industry to look harder at the question of why so many deaths have occurred in such a short time in an industry whose safety record had been rapidly improving.

Maybe all that's at work is an unfortunate series of coincidences, as spokesmen for the Labor Department and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have implied over the past several weeks. They have pointed out, accurately, that the trend in mining accidents is downward and has been so for two decades, including under the Bush administration. In 2005, there were 22 deaths in the United States, compared with 66 in 1990.

But there is another way to interpret the data. After all, when regulatory policies change, it can take time for the impact to be felt. The good safety record of the past five years may reflect not current policy but 1990-2000 policy, as well as industry investment. The recent spate of disasters may, in turn, reflect the events of 2001, when mine safety policies changed substantially. As we've written before, since taking office the Bush administration has put administrators with business ties to the mining industry at the head of MSHA. Those administrators have promoted a less punitive, more cooperative regulatory atmosphere, kept penalties for safety violations low and withdrawn proposed safety regulations. One such regulation could have led to safer underground conveyor belts; one of the recent accidents was caused by a conveyor belt fire.

...West Virginia's congressional delegation has proposed legislation to stiffen MSHA's spine, but the agency itself has the tools to regulate more stiffly. What its leaders need is a change of attitude, not a change of rules. Along with Congress and the White House, they should drop their complacency about what a wonderful job they are doing and start analyzing not just the mistakes made in recent accidents but whether the more cooperative regulatory model itself is working.
[Emphasis added]

OK, not bad: the editorialist pointed out what we are now learning, that BushCo stacked the agency with folks tied to the mining industry (lobbyists and former executives). Of course those appointees are not going to suddenly start biting the hands that have fed them for so long and may be in a position to feed them again. A more pertinent analysis, however, might have gone behind the appointees to the appointers, namely the Emperor and his minions. Still, it's a start, and this is the second time that WaPo has addressed the issue.

Second, today's NY Times editorial:

Federal safety officials, faced with the death of two more West Virginia miners, are asking the coal industry to "stand down for safety" tomorrow to check the nation's mines for lethal working conditions. This smacks of public relations more than worker protection. The safety agency, notorious for its political appointees from the coal industry, is also suddenly finding more inspectors for West Virginia, which has suffered 16 miner deaths recently.

The tragedies have laid bare the passivity and pro-industry bias in the Bush administration's stewardship of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Last month, the chief of the now-galvanized agency cavalierly announced more pressing business and walked out of a Congressional hearing into the initial West Virginia deaths, even as shocked lawmakers still had key questions unanswered.

...A pro-industry bias by government should not be tolerated. Yet, at a hearing for the administration's latest choice of still another company veteran to take control of mine safety, Republican lawmakers shamelessly praised the industry for lowering fatality statistics across time — as if those killed in West Virginia were a tolerable cost of Big Coal's doing business.
[Emphasis added]

Now we're getting closer to the important stuff. BushCo continues to appoint cronies and pimps because it can. Ain't nobody gonna stop them. Even after the incredible stories of the Sago Mining Companies horrible safety record, even after learning the deaths of two men at the Alma Mine might have been prevented if the coal conveyor belt had been fire resistant, Congress is still willing to accept the unacceptable.

Maybe, just maybe, if the press had been doing its job, Congress would have been shamed into doing its job. We've seen the Emperor's reaction to a genuine and vigorous push-back: Harriet Miers withdrew from the Supreme Court nomination. If Americans can work two or three jobs to put food on the table, surely the press and Congress can do a little multi-tasking in their one job.

At least it's a start, albeit a weak one.


Blogger glenda said...


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