Lax mine safety

February 06, 2006

Across the country, coal mines have been asked by federal officials to "Stand Down for Safety" today - to take time off to go over safety procedures. The unusual national focus on improving mine safety follows, of course, the deaths of 16 West Virginia miners just this year. And it mirrors a time-out for safety Thursday in that state.

But a day of emphasis on safety cannot make up for years of lax mine safety regulation and enforcement by the Bush administration, as detailed in a report released last Tuesday by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and Workforce. The report found that:

The White House has tried to cut the budget of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration every year but one since 2001, and the agency's coal enforcement staff has fallen by 9 percent in that period.

The number of major fines for safety violations proposed by the MSHA is down 10 percent since 2001; the median amount of those fines is off by 43 percent (compared with the Clinton era); and the number of criminal prosecution referrals has fallen as well.

Since Mr. Bush took office, the agency has withdrawn 18 safety regulations proposed by the Clinton administration, including three - requiring more rescue teams, underground caches of breathing devices and flame-resistant conveyer belts - that specifically might have saved lives in two of the recent West Virginia incidents.

Doubt mining could be safer? Last Monday, the last of 72 Canadian potash miners trapped by an underground fire were rescued unhurt. Credit was given to underground "safe rooms" with stored oxygen and food, where the miners waited out the fire so calmly that some played checkers. Safe rooms aren't a U.S. requirement.

At Maryland's three active underground coal mines, there are no state safety inspections and the federal agency's record appears mixed. Injuries are down, and there have been no fatalities since 1999. But last year saw a 62 percent increase in violations.

West Virginia just approved laws requiring mines to store more oxygen underground and to equip miners with tracking and communication devices. Similar federal legislation has been introduced. And the MSHA reportedly is revisiting some of the safety proposals dropped this decade.

Beyond better regulations, however, the MSHA is unlikely to become a tougher watchdog as long as it is run by appointees from the mining industry, such as Richard Stickler, a former coal company executive nominated by President Bush to lead the agency. At a Senate nomination hearing last week, Mr. Stickler was quoted as saying current mine safety laws are "adequate." That's cause enough for his nomination to be withdrawn. The agency needs a stronger safety advocate to reverse its direction.

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