How Bush Failed the Sago 13
by Scott Shields, Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 04:49:12 AM EST
Undoubtedly, some will criticize me for placing blame on President Bush here. The defense will be that Bush didn't cause the explosion that collapsed the mine. My response will be that he didn't do anything to prevent it. In fact, if anything, the actions of his administration made the situation worse.
A New York Times article dated August 9, 2004 detailed the Bush administration's close relationship with the coal mining industry. While the piece largely focused on environmental issues, it still makes it clear that administration's concern for the health and safety of coal miners took a back seat to their concern for the bank accounts of their allies at the mining companies.In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.
Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official - Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease....
Safety and environmental regulations often shift with control of the White House, but the Bush administration's approach to coal mining has been a particularly potent example of the blend of politics and policy.
In addition to Mr. Lauriski, who spent 30 years in the coal industry, Mr. Bush tapped a handful of other industry executives and lobbyists to help oversee safety and environmental regulations.
In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.
In an interview, Mr. Lauriski said that the proposals that were canceled were unnecessary. He said the agency had instead concentrated on other measures "we believed were important to pursue."...
Over the last six years, coal companies have donated $9 million to federal political candidates and party organizations, and 90 percent has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
More to the point, one of the "unnecessary" proposals canceled by the mining executive Bush appointed to head the MSHA was a Clinton-era rule titled "Escapeways and Refuges." It dealt specifically with "methane ignition" and "entrapment deaths."(Emphasis mine.)"This standard would revise and clarify an existing standard that requires underground metal and nonmetal mines to have at least two separate exits to the surface. Because of the physical limits in underground mines, fire, massive ground fall, methane ignition, inundation, for example, could result in multiple entrapment deaths. A second escapeway increases the likelihood that miners will not be trapped underground during an emergency if one escape route is cut off."
In December of 2001, under the leadership of Lauriski, it was withdrawn from the agenda due to "changing safety and health regulatory priorities." In other words, increased regulation of the mining industry was seen as a roadblock to increased profits.
This morning, it's come to the media's attention that the Sago Mine "was cited 208 times for alleged safety violations in 2005." The Labor Department has said that a whopping 96 of those citations were "significant and substantial." In fact, some of them may have been directly related to the situation at hand.
As the AFL-CIO points out in their analysis of the 2006 budget, the President continues to underfund the MSHA, effectively freezing their enforcement budget. International Coal Group, the owners of the Sago Mine, claim they would have closed the mine if it had been deemed unsafe. Obviously, with 208 citations, 96 of them "significant and substantial," it was deemed unsafe. But MSHA has no teeth and they know it, so they had nothing to fear in keeping it open.
I hope like hell those guys get out alive. I'm praying that they do. But things are not looking good right now. No matter what happens, when all is said and done, one thing is certain. The President's unwillingness to do what's right in the face of incoming checks from mining executives has made coal miners in less safe, whether they're in Pennsylvania, Montana, or in Tallmansville, West Virginia.
UPDATE: Welcome Cornerites and Malkin readers. If you've gotten this far, you likely know that this piece most certainly does not blame Bush for the Sago Mine disaster. Now ask yourselves why the conservative pundits want you think that's what I was writing. Here's a clue: Bush's indefensible fealty to corporate power undercuts the health and safety of workers at every level of the economy. Corporations understandably want to save money any way they can. Sometimes government has to step in to remind them that there are some corners that just should not be cut. And that's what offends the punditocracy so much -- God forbid you should actually see this issue from the side of the workers.
UPDATE II:The New York Times is reporting that 12 of the 13 miners have been found alive and are being taken to nearby hospitals. This follows an earlier report that one of the miners' bodies had been found, so it is incredibly good news. My heart goes out to the family of the miner who did not make it.
UPDATE III: Sadly, the stories about all but one of the miners making it out alive were inaccurate. Twelve of the thirteen were in fact killed in the accident. If there's any silver lining to this truly horrible story, it's that at least one of them -- Randal McCloy, a young father of two -- has survived, even though he's in critical condition.