A Mining Disaster

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

THE MERE THOUGHT of being trapped at the bottom of a coal mine is horrible enough to send shivers down most people's backs. But after the explosion that trapped 13 men in a West Virginia coal mine early Monday, an equally chilling story of safety neglect may be emerging as well. According to Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, the Sago coal mine, where the accident occurred, had an accident rate in 2004 that was three times higher than the national average. That record has since worsened: Last year, the mine's operators received 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations, 96 of which carried a "significant and substantial" risk of death or injury. In 2005 the mine was forced to halt operations 16 times after failing to comply with safety rules. Eight of those citations, which were among the most serious a mine can receive, occurred in the final quarter of the year.

Mining has never been a pristine or perfectly safe business. But there are mines in this country that operate safely and that receive no health and safety citations at all. At the very least, the safety problems at Sago should have caused officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for mine inspections, to take notice. Did they? We may never know. At the moment, a spokesman for the MSHA says it is "hard to say" whether the mine's record was unusual. Ms. Smith says the MSHA, which used to publish the results of its accident investigations, no longer does so. The Bush administration's preference for concealing formerly public information has, it seems, penetrated the mine safety inspection world, too.

Another question worth asking in the wake of this event is whether the culture of the MSHA has changed in the past six years. Once purely an enforcement agency, set up to make sure that mines followed safety regulations, the MSHA has in the past several years formed a series of "partnerships" with mining industry groups. In principle, such partnerships might help make mines safer. In practice, they might have allowed the agency to become too friendly with the businesses it regulates. When Congress comes back to town, we'd like to hear some open discussion about the health of the nation's mine inspections.

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