Coal Miners’ Safety “Shafted” by Bush

The Washington Monthly’s February issue features “Shafted” by Ken Ward, Jr., an article critiquing the Bush Administration’s mine safety policies.  The Charleston Gazette reporter provides some interesting historical mine safety facts, such as the 1891 federal law prohibiting the employment of workers younger than age 12, and offers something new when he juxtaposes the Clinton-era versus Bush-era policies. 

He writes:

“[Under Clinton, J. Davitt McAteer] …ordered sweeping inspections that forced mine operators to repair faulty brakes on coal trucks, shore up the mine roofs, and address other widespread problems.”   In contrast, Bush’s mine safety chief Dave Lauriski “told the Georgia Mining Association that the agency had taken on too much under McAteer and needed to focus on just a few important items” and told the National Mining Association that MSHA “would become less confrontational.”

Ward challenges the conventional view promoted by mining industry executives that coal mining is safer and safer every year.

“It’s true that mining deaths—and the death rate per ton of coal mined—dropped during the Lauriski regime.  But that’s in large part because most coal is now produced through surface mining in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.  …A broader look at the evidence suggests [however] that underground coal mining has become substantially more dangerous in recent years.  Over the past decade, the death rate per 10,000 miners in West Virginia, where a high proportion of miners continue to work underground, has actually increased, from about 1.2 (deaths per 10,000 miners) in 1997 to 3 in 2004.”

“Shafted” also recaps some of the initiatives removed from MSHA’s regulatory agenda during the Bush-era.  Ken Ward describes a meeting with mine operators in Hindman, Kentucky where Mr. Lauriski boasted about his scaled-back regulatory agenda:

“If you’ve seen it you noticed that it is quite a bit shorter than some past agendas.  And if you haven’t seen it, all I can say is, trust me, it’s significantly shorter.”

After last year’s record number of fatalities (47 coal miners killed on the job, and 25 metal and non-metal miners), MSHA’s regulatory agenda has grown with regulations proposed to increase civil penalties and improve mine rescue and communication.  At next week’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing “One Year after Sago and Alma”, we’ll get a chance to hear the current mine safety chief, Richard Stickler, report on MSHA’s progress on these important new rules.

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