Saturday, January 21, 2006

Having to ask the same questions, again.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged It is now time to start asking hard questions about the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia that claimed the lives of twelve coal miners and in which the one survivor was found by rescuers literally on death's doorstep.

Unfortunately, questions like those which needed to be addressed then, are slow to answer. Investigations must be done, the intentional misdirection and obfuscations of those who don't necessarily want full answers must be punctured, and then legislation must be passed. That takes time. And as the time drags so slowly by, the conditions that need to be corrected continue to exist, in many other places.

And so it was today. Two more West Virginia miners died, this time following a fire at the Aracoma Coal companies' Alma #1 mine near Melville, West Virginia.

Now, let's review the questions I asked in my post two weeks ago: I will copy and ask the three questions exactly as I asked them then, and then look at how they relate to the current disaster.

1. Why was action not taken by the owners of the mine to bring it into compliance? According to a number of news stories, the Aracoma mine received more than 90 citations from Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2005. According to the MSHA Web site, the most recent were issued Dec. 20, when the mine was hit with seven violations for problems related to its ventilation plan and efforts to control coal dust and other combustible materials. So, despite the mine receiving all of these citations, there is no indication that the owners actually spent any effort or money actually addressing them.

2. Why, after violation after violation after violation, did the government not take action to close down the mine? Well, just as I answered two weeks ago, merely issuing citations and then doing nothing to enforce them, as was the case with the Sago mine, in effect gives the owners the incentive to do nothing. As long as this question has to be asked, the first question will always have to be asked. But there is even another twist here. Today's tragedy was started by a fire in a conveyor belt system. It turns out that

An MSHA proposal in the early 1990s would have required more vigorous testing of fire resistancy of conveyor belts. But it was shelved in 2002.

The agency proposed the change after a study showed that conveyor belts sparked 53 coal mine fires between 1970 and 1988, with 36 of them occurring in the 1980s.

So this particular problem was well known by the government, and they proposed a remedy. But it was set aside by the Bush administration.

3. The mine was a non-union operation. Would a union have helped prevent this?

I will repost my answer from two weeks ago, because like the Sago mine, the Alma #1 mine is non-union.

You bet your sweet patootie they would have. Unions go to court and fight aggressively to have regulations enforced and safety improvements made, and the 'penalty' problem I mentioned in the second question doesn't exist, because employers fear legal action by the union and/or strikes much more than they fear the relative inaction by the government. Three years ago, the union in Pennsylvania (remember that?) pushed for everything from a speedy rescue operation to overtime pay for the trapped men.

In the face of a government whose response to these kind of things ranges from inaction to actively trying to roll back safety requirements, the best friend that people working in dangerous jobs like this can have, is a strong union.


Sara said...

Hi! I too wish I knew which politicians have done what, but I couldn't find any lists. I just snatched the list off a random site because I liked it.

Anonymous said...

This was started back when Reagan had his quest to bust unions, and union strength, and it's still going on. The end results are that it "legalizes" a company's "killing" of hard working Americans, and also "legitimizes" lack of responsibility and accountability. Bottom line, the less that is spent towards worker safety, the more profit can be made. I have first hand knowlege of how a corporation will try to rearrange the facts trying to shift blame about an accident that has injured, and even worse, killed a union employee. And these companies get slapped with puny little fines, and hire big gun lawyers to stiff the families who have suffered. Been there.

Anonymous said...

I posted on this too, on the AFL's coverage of occupational 'accidents' and deaths (their report, available by PDF) back after Sago and find that we touch on some of the same themes.
Also agree with barbi on the Reagan-era union busting (another frequent rant topic of mine, unions) Fact is the unions MUST be pro-active in organizing, growing, and protecting. I had hopes for the 'organizing institutes' way back when...but...then..nothing.

Anonymous said...

You know, Eli... the mining business is one of risk.. just like being a cop, firefighter, military, etc... I realize more should be done to protect the miners safety... but truth be told there are several mining accidents and deaths a year... this has been one year that the actual story's are being told.

Eli Blake said...


Agreed that mining is a dangerous profession. However, don't we owe it to the miners to enforce the law (these citations wouldn't have been issued if violations weren't occuring). This is the same thing as saying that we owe our troops adequately armored vehicles.

Saving a few bucks by cutting corners when people's lives depend on them, is morally unacceptable, and our government should also make it legally unacceptable by enforcing the law.