In the last month, 16 coal miners have died in West Virginia. As a result, West Virginia’s governor recently asked all of the state’s coal mines to voluntarily suspend operations until safety inspections can be carried out. Although the public has only recently become aware of problems with mine safety, the Bush administration has known for three years that there were significant safety issues. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative office of Congress, issued a blistering report on coal mine safety.
In 1977, Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which gave the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) the responsibility of ensuring the safety and health of mine workers. Under the provisions of the Mine Act, MSHA must inspect each underground coal mine four times a year. MSHA has the authority to cite mine operators for violations of the Mine Act, ensure that hazards are corrected expeditiously, restrict or close mines for serious violations, and investigate mine accidents. MSHA is also responsible for approving the plans of mine operators for ventilation and roof support systems.
Mine operators are required to file their initial ventilation and roof support plans with MSHA prior to operating a mine, and must submit revisions to MSHA for approval at least every six months. However, the GAO report determined that MSHA officials didn’t monitor completion of required inspections of ventilation and roof support systems. As a result, the report ominously warned that “some mines may have been operating without adequate ventilation or roof support plans.” Inspections of a mine’s ventilation and roof support plans are critical for ensuring sufficient airflow and controlling the accumulation of dust particles in coal mines as well as ensuring that the roofs are properly supported.
MSHA is also responsible for approving plans for controlling and containing mine debris, known as “impoundment.” Failure of an impoundment can be extremely destructive, as communities can be flooded with sludge, affecting water supplies for decades. In 1972, an impoundment dam failure at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia killed 125 people and destroyed 500 homes. But according to the 2003 GAO report, there were various problems with MSHA’s review of impoundments. The agency didn’t have a method of quickly reviewing impoundment plans and didn’t have the staffing needed to ensure timely and thorough review of the plans.
The GAO report also revealed that MSHA’s inspection procedures were vague and were located in so many different sources that the procedures were difficult to identify. And the report noted that some procedures didn’t clearly indicate the criteria inspectors should use in determining violations. The report noted, “The lack of specific criteria for floating coal dust made it difficult to determine what was an allowable level.” This dust is extremely flammable and can cause explosions in underground mines.
The report also acknowledged that MSHA’s data on its required quarterly inspections of coal mines was woefully inadequate. MSHA officials didn’t monitor their district offices to ensure that unsafe conditions identified during inspections were corrected. MSHA procedures require inspectors to follow up with mine operators within the deadline set or to extend the deadline.
But the GAO report demonstrated that for almost half of all citations in which a deadline was established inspectors failed to follow up in a timely manner to ensure that violations had been corrected. In fact, the more serious types of violations -- those classified as “significant and substantial” -- accounted for a large proportion of the citations in which inspectors didn’t follow up by the required deadlines. In total, inspectors didn’t follow up on over 48 percent of these violations by the deadline.
The report also revealed that approximately 44 percent of MSHA’s inspectors were scheduled for retirement within five years, yet the agency had no plans to replace these inspectors. MSHA also had fewer inspector trainees on board than vacancies that would need to be filled when inspectors retired. And MSHA officials admitted that it would be difficult to hire and train replacements for the inspectors who retired.
The GAO also uncovered that MSHA was not collecting data on injuries by contractor coal miners. As a result, the report indicated that MSHA couldn’t accurately calculate fatality or nonfatal injury rates for miners. Consequently, MSHA couldn’t identify trends in fatal or nonfatal injuries at individual mines in order to target its enforcement resources. The report noted that this was a significant oversight, because the number of contractor miners has been gradually increasing. In 1993, 13 percent were contractors, but by 2002 it had grown to 18 percent.
The failure of the Bush administration to correct significant problems at MSHA is the result of several factors. In one regard, it’s another example of the administration’s tunnel vision with respect to the war in Iraq, in which it has largely ignored domestic issues. And it’s also partly due to the administration’s pro-business policies, which places profits ahead of the health and well being of American workers. As a result, 16 miners have paid the ultimate price for the administration’s indifference.
Gene C. Gerard has taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at several colleges in the Southwest, and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press. He writes a blog for the world news web site OrbStandard at: www.orbstandard.com/GGerard.
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