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January 04, 2006

Behind The Mine Disaster: Act of God or Corporate Shortcuts?

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

(NOTE: This was written last night. Just before going to bed I heard the false report that 12 of the miners had been rescued. I can't imagine what the families and friends of these workers must be going through now.)

First, in case you're not keeping up with the news, the situation looks increasingly desperate for the 13 miners trapped underground by yesterday's explosion. Air samples from a hole drilled into the main show carbon monoxide levels more than three times the maximum acceptable level for breathing indicating that there was (or still is) a fire burning. Unless the miners managed to barricade themselves in an areas with fresh air, experts are increasingly pessimistic about their chances of survival.

According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Sago Mine had been cited over 200 times in the past year. Because the Mine Safety and Health Act require every mine to be inspected four times a year, numerous citations are not uncommon. The troubling thing is that both citations and injuries have gone up significantly since last year. The mine's injury rate is three times the industry average and it has been plagued by a dozen roof falls in the last half of last year.

Although there were plenty of injuries, to a certain extent the miners' luck held out -- until yesterday:

Government documents also show a high rate of injuries and accidents at Sago. Although no miners were reported killed at the mine since at least 1995, 42 workers and contractors were injured in accidents since 2000, records show. The average number of working days lost because of accidents in the past five years was nearly double the national average for underground coal mines, MSHA documents show.

Some serious accidents caused no injuries. For example, in the past year, large sections of the mine's rocky roof collapsed on at least 20 occasions -- but not when workers were in the affected tunnels. Some of the collapsed sections were rocky slabs of up to 100 feet long. The most recent roof collapse occurred on Dec. 5, less than a month before Monday's explosion.

Former Mine Safety and Health Administrator Davitt McAteer observed that:
"When the numbers are going in the wrong direction, management has not been doing its job. It's not the worst mine record, but when you've got three times the national accident rate, something is wrong."

Meanwhile, in the spirit of taking full responsibility, International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago mine, is blaming the explosion on an act of God:
"It's a horrible freak accident," [International Coal Group Chairman Wilbur] Ross said in an interview yesterday. "Apparently a lightning bolt struck the mine."
Yeah, and apparently there are monkeys flying out of your ass.

Experts are quite skeptical about the lightning theory. McAteer thinks that while it is possible that lightning may have ignited the explosion, he isn't aware of any other such instances. There are several other causes that are more likely. First, even if lightning did strike the mine and somehow find its way underground, the lightning would only be the ignition source. An explosion also needs fuel. There are two likely fuel sources in mines: methane gas and coal dust. The Sago mine reportedly had low levels of methane, although a rise in the barometric pressure can cause methane to be liberated faster. For this reason, MSHA has a system of winter alerts.

Coal dust is a more likely problem. A small explosion that kicks up a cloud of coal dust can generate a much larger secondary explosion. The mine was cited by MSHA 21 times last year for an "accumulation of combustible materials." Dry winter air also makes coal dust explosions more likely.

Finally, McAteer notes that the mine had just been started up after being shut down for the holidays. Startups after idle periods are problems.

Meanwhile, back here in the nation's capital, the President Bush announced that the miners are in his prayers.

May God bless those who are trapped below the earth and may God bless those who are concerned about those trapped below the earth.
Well, that just about covers everyone.

The explosion even headlined Presidential Press Spokesman Scott McClellan's daily press briefing:

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome back; Happy New Year. I want to begin with just an update on the situation in Upshur County, West Virginia, and the coal miners who have been trapped there.

The President continues to be kept informed about the situation. He was briefed this morning. He has reached out to the governor, as well. We are praying and hoping for the best. The miners and their families are in our thoughts and prayers. The federal government is actively helping in the rescue.

OK, that's all well and fine. I'm happy that the President is so concerned and I look forward to a significant increase in MSHA's budget. But the President and Scotty should also be aware that in addition to this extremely tragic event involving the lives of these 13 men and those who love them, 15 workers die in workplace accidents every day in this country. Take a look at the last Weekly Toll that lists only 75 of the approximate 200 workplace deaths over the past two weeks. Why are these souls any different or less worthy of the President's prayers than the 12 West Virginia miners?

One reason: Most of the these workers died one at a time, hardly even noticed by their local newspapers, much less the President of the United States. Nevertheless, they should be no less deserving of the nation's attention, resources or commitment.

The fact is that President Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years while penalties for OSHA or MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received last year by the Sago mine was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. At that rate, it's hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything. And the administration has shut down any new worker protection standards in OSHA and MSHA.

It's not hard to imagine why this state of affairs exists in an administration dominated by energy interests. As James Ridgeway points out in the Village Voice, out of $2.3 million in coal company contributions to federal candidates during the 2004 election cycle, 90 percent went to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

So, Mr. President, until you can put some real money down on the table, and appoint some people who aren't afraid to rock the boat to protect workers' lives, save me your crocodile tears. These miners and millions of other workers who go to work every morning fearing they may not come home alive at night are literally putting their lives on the line to support their families.

They deserve better.

Posted by Jordan Barab at January 4, 2006 07:32 AM