JUST AS HURRICANE Katrina put a spotlight on the leadership and competence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so, too, it seems, is the Sago coal mine disaster destined to shine a light on the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Unlike FEMA, the mine safety agency -- which sets safety standards for the mining industry and inspects mines to ensure they meet them -- has not been run by inexperienced people. But it does seem that MSHA, like a slew of other agencies in this administration, has been run for the past five years by people who emerged from the industry being regulated.
For three years, until November 2004, the head of MSHA was David D. Lauriski, a former senior mining executive. Mr. Lauriski left his job soon after a Labor Department report found that while he was in charge, the agency had awarded questionable contracts to companies with ties to him or his associates. His term in office was also marked by disputes over an investigation into a major environmental disaster, as well as his attempts to change dust regulations in a way that would have directly benefited his former employer. Since then, the agency has been run by an acting administrator, a political appointee with no background in mine safety. He can, of course, always ask advice from his deputies, many of whom have also come directly from the industry over the past five years.
The change in personnel at MSHA was also accompanied by a change in policy. From the start, the administration said it wants its appointees to work in partnership with industry rather than in opposition to it. This cooperation has in practice produced some good things, such as seminars and workshops on improving safety, as well as training programs for miners. It also has meant that some proposed safety regulations have been withdrawn, and fines for breaking existing rules have remained low. The administration says it has asked Congress to raise these penalties, but it hasn't pushed very hard. The Sago Mine, which racked up an unusually high number of health and safety penalties over the past two years, never paid more than a few hundred dollars for any of them.
But this isn't the whole story. During the past five years, as over the past two decades, mines have been getting safer, with fewer fatalities and accidents. Mining industry experts and observers generally attribute these changes to better technology, which has gradually been put in place over the past five to 10 years, and more mechanized labor. It is also likely that for the majority of mines -- particularly those where mine operators are already anxious to learn more about new safety technology -- the administration's "partnerships" work.
The Sago accident may, however, illustrate where the administration's method does not work: at smaller, less productive mines, or at mines run by someone not interested in friendly MSHA seminars. Indeed, the pattern of repeated, serious safety violations and low penalties at Sago are on their own an indictment of MSHA's leaders, who are responsible for noticing such patterns. Those in Congress who have called for oversight hearings of MSHA are right to do so. We hope that they look into not just the causes of any one disaster but more generally at the relationship between Mr. Bush's "industry-friendly" policies and the tragedy in West Virginia Jan. 2.