Two Utah Republicans -- Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Howard Nielson -- have called for congressional hearings on the recent coal mine disaster in their home state. The hearings will likely take place in early February.
Twenty-seven dead miners rest in the tunnels of the Wilberg coal mine in Emery County, Utah. Their entombment may be permanent. A fire, feeding off one of the richest coal seams in the nation, is burning out of control. The mine, owned by Emery Mining Co., has been sealed, and no one is saying with certainty when, if ever, it will be opened.
Uncertainty is an occupational hazard among coal miners. In the Utah accident -- the coal field's worst in 14 years -- it carried over into death for those 27 people.
Uncertainty is present, too, in the causes of the disaster. A collection of officials -- from the union, company and government -- showed up at the mine to advance theories about what happened. The eventual discovery may take years, with a report being issued that probably won't rate a tenth of the attention paid the day after the disaster.
It needs to be understood that what went wrong in the Wilber mine was the result -- however unintentional -- of much that is chronically wrong in the attitudes of those who make decisions about mine safety. The Emery Mining Corporation's record is poor. In 1982, according to the Labor Department, its injury rate was three times the national average: 37 injuries per 200,000 man-hours. It cut that to 17 in 1983, and was down to 11 -- slightly above the national average -- when the 27 people were killed in December. Emery, a firm that boasts of its concern for safety, has paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars in fines in seven years for not meeting safety standards.
Such numbers tell only part of the Emery philosophy. A more revealing part is found in a decision by the Federal Mine Safety Health and Review Commission. In 1981, a commission administrative law judge ruled that Emery had broken the law by not reimbursing 12 miners for the costs of a 32-hour training course they took before being hired. In this nickel-and- dime scam, Emery also did not pay the men while they were trained, which is required by law as well.
The judge fined Emery $1,000 and ordered it to compensate the miners. The case was no great legal landmark. It is in the books merely as an example of corporate penny-pinching. Not only did Emery try to play it cheap with some new employees who may have been too new on the scene to know they were being hustled, but then the company, after being told to pay up, spent nearly two years appealing the decision. First niggling, then haggling.
The 15-year history of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act is a dark tunnel of resistance by companies large and small. The law, mild to begin with, is routinely fought by the industry as though voluntary compliance is a waste of profits and safety a waste of time. A corporate cynicism has long pervaded the coal fields. Why sweat compliance, seems to be the attitude, when it is cheaper to pay the fines for breaking the law than to uphold it in the first place?
The haunted miners know the other truth: If only half of what any given company pays its attorneys to fight the regulations were spent on safety, the mines might not be sinkholes of risk and death.
The attitude of the companies has been matched in the last four years by that of the Reagan administration. To get government off the well-padded back of the coal industry, the Mine Safety and Health Administration opened a cozy era of "cooperative enforcement." This was like the Reagan policy of "constructive engagement" in South Africa, with similarly dismal results. In four years of cooperation, fines against coal companies have been lightened, enforcement personnel cut and safety budgets reduced. Now, with 124 deaths in 1984 -- up from 70 in 1983 -- an MSHA official says the past year is a "monumental disappointment."
What was expected?
Few understand the politics of non- enforcement better than Tom Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky. "The general feeling among the miners," he says, "is that under the Reagan administration anything goes. The companies can get away with anything they want, and the miners are going to get into trouble if they speak out. They are worried about their jobs in a time in which we have at least 30 percent unemployment." In Kentucky, 39 miners were killed in 1984, with 33 in non-union mines.
The Utah disaster will be remembered for another reason besides the fatalities. On death day, the company had sent six officials -- including a vice president -- into the tunnels to whip up the miners to produce more coal. A nearby mine, it seems, had recently set a world record for production, and it was time for Emery, in its own production frenzy, to reassert itself as No. 1. This underground Olympics led to no medals, just as in most mines, a zeal for safety wins no medals either.