Mine Deaths Follow Weak Regulations

By Dreier, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Mine Deaths Follow Weak Regulations


Dreier, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


Two miners--48-year-old James Thomas and 33-year-old Pete Poindexter--died in January when a coal mine in McDowell County, W.Va., owned by the Brooks Run Mining Company, collapsed. The following day, media stories quoted Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, as "saddened by the tragic accident."

Miners and their families view their work with a certain fatalism, understanding that coal mining is risky. Plus, this industry is the backbone of the economy in parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

In fact, many mine accidents and deaths could be prevented with stronger government regulations and enforcement. It is no coincidence that last year's coal mine death toll--47--was the highest since 1995. Miners today face increasingly unsafe conditions because of the Bush administration's rollbacks of health and safety regulations, the slashing of the budget and staff for safety inspection, and the appointment of former mining industry executives to federal mine safety agencies.

Since taking office in 2001, the administration has brought in mining industry insiders to stack the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. One of them is Mr. Stickler, a former executive at a West Virginia subsidiary of Massey Energy, which has one of the worst safety records in the industry. At a Senate confirmation hearing in January 2006, Mr. Stickler said he did not believe the nation had to strengthen its mine safety laws. The Senate twice rejected Mr. Stickler's nomination, so Mr. Bush had to resort to making him a recess appointment last October without Senate confirmation.

Mr. Bush's other appointees to top Mine Safety and Health Administration positions have included David Lauriski (former executive at Energy West Mining), John Caylor (executive with three companies, including Cyprus Minerals), John Correll (Amax Mining and Peabody Coal), Mark Ellis (former legal counsel for the American Mining Congress) and Melinda Pon (executive at BHP Minerals). Mr. Lauriski was forced to resign in 2004 after CBS's "60 Minutes" reported that under his direction the agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts to companies with ties to him and one of his assistants. Bush also appointed a former deputy general counsel for the National Mining Association as chair of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and named two other industry executives to the five-member board.

Mr. Bush's appointees have weakened regulations requiring ventilation in coal mines, proposed rules that would allow mine operators to increase coal dust in the mines and delayed implementation of a Clintonera rule improving air quality standards.

During its first five years in office, the Bush administration opposed legislation supported by the United Mine Workers and Democrats in Congress that would require stronger standards on oxygen availability for mine emergencies, mine rescue teams, communications and tracking devices; require immediate notification of accidents and rapid emergency response; set mandatory minimum penalties for egregious and repeated violations; and prohibit the use of dangerous conveyor belts to ventilate work areas. …

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