Four months ago, Mr. Dale Jones, 51 and Mr. Michael Wilt, 38 were killed in a massive highwall collapse at a surface coal mine near Barton, Maryland.  The two miners were buried under 93,000 tons of rock, and it took rescue crews three days to recover the men’s bodies.  

This week, MSHA assessed a monetary penalty of $180,000 against the mine operator Tri-Star Mining, Inc.  (Their accident investigation report was issued six weeks ago.) 

In a news release announcing the fine, MSHA’s Assistant Secretary Richard Stickler said:

“Two miners lost their lives because federal safety laws were not followed.  Mine operators must be held accountable for their actions, and MSHA will not hesitate to issue stiff penalties against companies that fail to comply with health and safety regulations.”

MSHA’s investigators identified three violations of safety regulations which contributed to the miners’ deaths.  Specifically:

  • a failure to establish and follow a ground control plan
  • a failure to correct hazardous conditions and allowing miners to work under dangerous highwalls and a spoil bank, and
  • a failure to conduct adequate examinations of the highwall and spoil bank.

The agency issued the maximum penalty allowed under the Mine Act: $60,000 each, for a total of $180,000.

As I wrote in an earlier post (here), MSHA’s investigation describes in great detail the geology of the coal seams and rock structure in the mine, including the tremendous hazard created by the previous underground mining in the highwall itself. MSHA’s report noted:

“Severe subsidence above both the Sewickley and Pittsburgh coal seams…caused the highwall to be extremely fractured. Pillar remnants in the Pittsburgh seam represented a severely weakened layer near the base of the highwall. …the combination of these factors resulted in a very unstable highwall and resulted in the highwall failure.”

But that was only half the story.

This fractured and highly-unstable 275 foot highwall did not become dangerous overnight. The report noted that there were underground mines in this area dating back to 1888, and the steep highwall backs right up to those mined-out workings. Imagine a steep wall and just behind it an area that looks like swiss cheese. No doubt it is going to be unstable.

How in the world did MSHA officials inspect this mine and not see a disaster waiting to happen??  Under the Mine Act, MSHA is required to inspect every surface mine in the country at least two times per year (four times per year for underground mines.)  

When most of us think about mine inspectors, we think of expertly trained individuals who have the experience to identify dangerous conditions and the authority to force a mine operator to correct the situation.  But, we’ve had seven years of a Secretary of Labor and a White House who think that law enforcement to protect workers’ rights is a dirty word and anti-business.   They are so wrong.

They’ve espoused policies that greatly favor partnerships, alliances, and cooperative agreements with employers, instead of strict enforcement of laws designed to save workers from injuries, illnesses and deaths.

We have hundreds of federal mine inspectors who were hired by MSHA to ENFORCE the law.  That’s what miners and their families expect.  But for seven years now, these inspectors have been operating in an environment that rewards cooperation with mine operators over healthy skepticism about an operator’s practices and their motivations (that is, the factors that influence day-to-day decision making at mining operations.)

I don’t believe there are any mine owners, superintendents or foreman who wake up in the morning and intentionally design ways to injure or kill their workers.  No way.  But there are very strong economic forces in our country (face it–it’s the American way) which can color people’s judgment.  This includes decisions about risks, including those that may put workers’ health or safety in danger. 

For example, a mine operator could install rear- and side-view cameras on their huge 300-ton mining trucks (photo) which would help the worker operating the vehicle avoid running over smaller trucks and killing the worker inside it (read more here).  But, the cost of buying, installing and maintaining the camera systems is, say $100K.  At your mine, you’ve never had any fatalities of this sort, so the cost of this equipment seems high compared to the potential risk of this type of accident occuring.  Plus, MSHA doesn’t have a regulation requiring video cameras on haulage trucks, even though we know:

Since 1987, there have been 58 miners killed in incidents “involving haulage trucks where restricted visibility was determined to be a contributing factor” (read more here).   [Why we don't have a requirement for cameras on trucks is a topic for another day.]

In assessing the possible benefits of enhanced worker safety protections, mine operators (who are businessmen and responsible for the ongoing financial viability of their company) are constantly weighing the costs-and-benefits of their potential decisions.  If we invest in this-or-that safety device, will it “pay-off” in the long run?  This weighing of decisions may (or may not) be especially true for companies which are publicly-traded firms with corporate officials accountable to shareholders.* 

So, these mine operators, many who proudly proclaim that they were once coal miners themselves, are business people making economic decisions.  At times, the lure of short-term economic gains may trump considerations about worker safety.  Whether it be shortcuts on equipment maintenance, holding off replacement of worn parts, or skimping on staff to conduct safety checks or reinforce safe work practices, these are all potential trade-offs for a businessman who is motivated by profit.  (See Economics 101.)  That’s why a mine inspector’s healthy skepticism of a mine operator’s practices is so very important.  Like President Ronald Reagan’s famous adage “Trust But Verify.” 

But, for the last seven years, federal mine inspectors have heard a steady drum-beat of cooperation over confrontation, and partnerships instead of enforcement.  That philosophy came directly from the Secretary of Labor, through her Solicitor of Labor and top staff, down to MSHA’s Assistant Secretary’s David Lauriski (confirmed), David Dye (acting) and Richard Stickler (recess appointed).  Even the dedicated miner’s safety advocate, Davitt McAtter, couldn’t do everything he wanted to do during the Clinton Administration.  These Assistant Secretaries do not operate in a vacuum, and often are forced to wait for the Secretary’s “yea” or “nay” before they act.  The philosophy at the top–be it Mr. Bush or Secretary Chao–matters in the way that federal employees conduct their jobs.

If people want to know the answer to “what is wrong with MSHA?” they’d better look beyond Mr. Stickler’s desk to the woman who’s calling the shots.

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*Most of the top producing coal mine operators in the U.S. are publicly-traded firms: Peabody (NYSE: BTW),  CONSOL (NYSE: CNX), Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI), Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE), Alliance Resources (NYSE: ARLP), Foundation Coal (NYSE: FCL), Jim Walters Resources (NYSE: WLT).  Murray Energy is another one of the top producers, but is not a public firm.

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