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Utah Mine Disaster Shows Flaws in Federal Oversight

Despite over two and a half weeks of rescue efforts, six coal miners still remain trapped in Utah in a tragedy that has also claimed the lives of three rescuers. The dangerous conditions apparent at the mine, as well as the treacherous rescue plan, call into question the quality of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) procedures. MSHA approved the mine operation plan in June, just months after serious structural problems forced the operators to abandon work in an area that was only 900 feet from where the miners are trapped. 

Mine operators also knew that the tremendous pressure of a mountain bearing down on the mine was creating problems with the roof and were searching for a way to keep the mine from falling in as they cut away the coal pillars supporting the structure. As Robert Ferriter, director of the mine safety program at the Colorado School of Mines said, "What is MSHA doing in all this? They're the ones who are supposed to catch this sort of thing." Utah's Governor echoed the sentiment saying, "How is it that MSHA can come in and give this mine a clean bill of health and within weeks we have this catastrophe?"

According to hearings before the House on mine worker safety, MSHA has rolled back safety and health rules, and has shifted its focus away from enforcing the law and moving towards "voluntary compliance assistance." Written testimony submitted by the United Mine Workers of America states that 2006 was the most deadly year for miners since 1991. In response to the mine tragedy in Sago, West Virginia, Congress passed the MINER Act, the first new mine healthy and safety bill to be enacted by Congress in nearly 30 years. However, the agency has yet to put regulations in place, even though states have been able to more quickly implement new safety standards. 

States Taking the Lead

As we've pointed out time and again, the states are picking up where the feds are failing. Kentucky and West Virginia recently passed increased safety standards for mines. Last year, West Virginia passed SB 247, which creates the Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System and new procedures for the emergency mine response. This year, Kentucky's legislature passed HB 207, which requires increased numbers of mine inspections, more multi-gas detectors, investigative subpoena power, and more mine emergency technicians at mining sites. Pennsylvania's Governor Rendell vowed to make stronger mine safety legislation a priority this fall and Utah's Governor has stated his interest in the state playing a greater role in regulating mine safety.

But sadly, on the federal level, the extreme bias towards industry and profit seem to know no limit. Robert Murray, president of the company that co-owns the mine, is a shining example of a Bush man. When confronted by MSHA inspectors about safety problems, Murray shouted, "(Senator) Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and the last I checked, he was sleeping with your boss," referring to the fact that Sen. McConnell is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, whose agency oversees MSHA. Murray also showed disturbingly little regard for the impact of the accident when he began talking about re-starting mining activities at the very same mine less than two weeks after the incident. Even the MSHA spokesman said, "we were shocked that the subject was even brought up." 

Nowhere is the current administration's bias more evident than in the head of the MSHA, Richard Stickler, a former coal industry executive. Stickler's confirmation is a story that is unfortunately all too common in the current administration. The Senate twice sent his nomination back to Bush for several reasons, among which were charges that when Stickler was a senior manager at a mine in West Virginia, the injury rate was three times the national average. Using his characteristic disregard for anything resembling dissent, Bush appointed Stickler during the October Congressional recess. 

While his temporary appointment will end this year, it was more than enough time for Stickler to slow implementation of mine safety improvements and far too much time for the families of the Utah miners trapped, the families of the rescue workers killed, and the families of the miners killed in Indiana just days after the Utah mine collapse.

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