Wednesday, January 04, 2006
IT JUST PISSES ME OFF
Once again President Bush comes on television and asks us to pray for those lost in the Sago Mine in West Virginia, to pray for their families, etc. ad. nausium.
Nice thought from a man who has done nothing but fight regulations concerning mine safety, who guts the agency which is supposed to protect miners, who appoints mine company cronies to key posts in Mine Safety and Health Administration.
What has happened in West Virginia should not be a surprise to a nation which votes for people who push deregulation of industries everywhere.
Soon the news will drift away and as with everything else, the deaths of these men will be history. America will go about its business.
Bush will smile his awful smile…and the people will forget.
Anyway, below are some comments of interest:
From Confined Space (News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics)
Behind the Mine Disaster
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.
From Think Progress Blog
Administration Neglected Coal Mining Safety
Federal authorities issued 21 citations last year for a build-up of combustible materials at the West Virginia mine where 12 men died, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.
The mining explosion should call attention to the Bush administration’s inadequate enforcement of federal mining safety regulations. Mining safety in the U.S. has improved dramatically since the Mining Safety and Health Act was signed in 1977. By the time that President Clinton signed the International Labor Organization’s Convention 176 concerning safety and health in mines, mining deaths dropped from 425 in 1970 to 85 in 2000.
Phil Smith, the communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, said that while citations were issued, the fines assessed for safety violations are too small to force large corporations to make improvements. “The problem with the current laws is enforcement.” According to an AFL-CIO analysis, the Bush administration cut 170 positions from federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure.
And there’s a reason for that. The Washington Post reported that West Virginia coal firms raised $275,000 for Bush.
Last September, Bush rewarded the coal industry by placing coal industry veteran Richard Stickler in charge of MSHA. Stickler spent about 30 years as a coal company manager with Beth Energy. Mines managed by Stickler were marked by worker injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data cited by the United Mine Workers union.
From World Socialist Website
Twelve of 13 miners found dead after false rescue report
By Jerry Isaacs
State officials in West Virginia have confirmed that 12 miners were killed in the massive explosion that ripped through the Sago Mine on Monday morning.
The horrifying news came only hours after the miners’ families had been told, and CNN prominently reported, that all but one of the miners had been found alive and were being pulled up to safety.
Jubilation erupted in the mining community when the initial rescue report came through. CNN broadcast scenes of what it claimed to be ambulance vehicles ferrying survivors to local hospitals for treatment.
However, within three hours the families were told that 12 miners were dead, and that the one survivor had sustained serious injuries.
Ben Hatfield, president of the International Coal Group, stated: “The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors. That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center. It quickly got out of control.”
The false reports of survival served only to intensify the anguish felt by the families when the later reports of the miners’ deaths emerged.
The disaster began with an explosion early Monday morning, as the first shift of miners entered the mine, which had been closed Sunday for the New Year holiday.
President Bush issued a perfunctory statement on Tuesday, saying the nation was praying for the men and pledging federal help in the effort to bring them out alive. “May God bless those who are trapped below the earth,” he said.
The hypocrisy of Bush’s remarks is highlighted by the role of his administration in gutting mine safety inspections and promoting the downsizing, deregulation and unlimited profiteering that have contributed to this tragedy.
A number of those in the grim vigil outside the Sago Mine have remarked bitterly over the fact that workers in the impoverished Appalachian coal fields are forced to risk life and limb every day simply to earn enough to support their families.
There have been 149 fatalities in mine accidents nationwide and 38 in West Virginia in the last five years, including 27 miners who died in underground accidents in West Virginia. Despite the dangerous conditions, economic desperation continues to drive workers into the occupation.
Samantha Lewis, whose 28-year-old husband, David, is among those trapped, said he worked the mines so he could be home every night to take care of their three daughters while she worked on a master’s degree in health-care administration. “This was a good way to make a living until we could find something else,” Lewis said. “It’s just a way of life. Unless you’re a coal miner or you have a college degree, you don’t make any money.”
Mac Davis, a former miner who awaited word of a loved one trapped in the mine, said one reason he quit mining was the relaxed attitude toward safety in many mines, especially in the recent coal boom. “If they don’t do something, there’s going to be a lot more accidents like this,” he told the Charleston Gazette.
Daniel Meredith, the son-in-law of one of the trapped miners, said the 61-year-old miner planned to retire this year. “Every day he would come home and pray for who was going in,” said Meredith, who stood outside the mining complex.
More than four decades after Michael Harrington highlighted the desperate conditions in Appalachia in his work, The Other America, West Virginia continues to be one of the most impoverished states in America. The state has the lowest median income in the US and the sixth highest percentage of poverty (17 percent). In Upshur County, where the Sago Mine is located, more than 20 percent of the population lives below the US government’s official poverty level.
Far from being an exception to the rule, the Sago Mine and its ownership epitomize the type of operation that has come to dominate the coal fields. The mine, located near Buckhannon, West Virginia has a recent history of roof falls and serious safety violations, according to the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), and an injury rate three times that of similar-sized underground mines across the country.
In the last year alone, the mine’s owner, International Coal Group (ICG), was issued 205 citations, including 46 during the most recent inspection of the Sago Mine from early October to late December 2005. According to the Washington Post, inspectors listed 96 citations as “serious and substantial,” i.e., those MSHA believes could cause an accident serious enough to injure or kill a miner. These included violations of approved roof control and mine ventilation plans intended to prevent the buildup of explosive methane gas.
The Post noted in an editorial that the mine was forced to suspend operations 16 times in 2005 after failing to comply with safety rules.
The number of citations increased sharply after ICG took over the mine from the bankrupt Anker Energy and reopened it in 2004. ICG is owned by billionaire New York financier Wilbur Ross, who has invested $4.5 billion during the last five years to buy up—in many cases at bargain basement prices—steel, textile, coal, automotive, rail and financial companies in the US, UK, France, China, Germany, Japan and Korea.
Ross, who is rated 278th on Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans, specializes in acquiring steel mills and mines held by bankrupt companies and making them profitable by wiping out jobs, dumping pension obligations and renegotiating labor contracts to drive up productivity and cut labor costs. Fortune magazine recently called Ross, “The Bankruptcy King,” while BusinessWeek said Ross supervised a “growing empire of the damned.”
Many of ICG’s top executives, including CEO Bennett Hatfield, gained their experience at Massey Energy Company, which became the fourth largest coal company in America by spearheading the ruthless union-busting campaigns of the 1980s against the miners’ union. Massey was also a generous election contributor to Bush, who has, in turn, championed coal production and the deregulation of the mining industry.
Ross is only one player among dozens of speculators and asset strippers active in the wave of acquisitions and mergers sweeping the coal industry. In order to avoid the high cost of developing unproven mines and cash in on rising coal prices, these operators are increasing their share of the market by buying out smaller companies and destroying the hard won gains of coal miners. Inevitably, safety is sacrificed.
In their efforts to defend the mine’s safety record, company officials unintentionally acknowledged the fact that safety standards have declined throughout the industry. Gene Kitts, ICG vice president of mining services, said, “The mine has some history of roof conditions, roof falls and such, but it’s not unlike most other mines.”
If coal mining fatalities have fallen in recent years it is not primarily because of qualitative improvements in safety, but because the number of working miners has plunged to historic lows. West Virginia, the second largest coal producing state in the US, once had 120,000 mining jobs. It now has 15,000.
For more than a century, West Virginia was identified with the militant struggles of the miners. The fight against unsafe conditions, such as Black Lung Disease, was central to these struggles. After the 1968 explosion and death of 78 miners at Consolidated Coal’s Farmington, West Virginia mine (just 50 miles from the site of the Sago Mine) a decade of a powerful rank-and-file struggles erupted against the coal bosses and the pro-company Tony Boyle leadership of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). This culminated in the miners’ defiance of the President Jimmy Carter’s strike-breaking Taft-Hartley injunction during the national strike of 1977-78.
Over the last quarter of century, however, the UMWA has betrayed one strike after another, from the 1984-85 AT Massey strike to the 1989-90 Pittston strike, and pursued a policy of labor-management collaboration that has led to the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs and a historic reversal in the position of miners and their families.
During the 1974 national coal strike, there were 120,000 active UMWA coal miners. Today there are no more than 30,000-40,000, although the UMWA refuses to release official figures.
A measure of its indifference towards the miners is the failure of the UMWA even to post a statement on its web site about the Sago mine disaster, and union spokesmen failed to return calls from the World Socialist Web Site.
For its part, the Bush administration has gutted safety and health conditions in the mines. As it has in other regulatory agencies, the White House has stacked the Mine Safety and Health Administration with representatives of corporate interests, reduced funds and manpower to enforce regulations, and scrapped critical safety and health regulations.
Bush named former Massey Energy official Stanley Suboleski to the MSHA review commission that decides all legal matters under the federal Mine Act. The current MSHA chief is Richard Sickler, a former manager of Beth Energy mines.
Last month, a federal law judge threw out all eight MSHA citations against Jim Walters Resources that were the result of an investigation into the 2001 explosions at the company’s Alabama mine, where 13 miners were killed. The judge, who said MSHA failed to prove its allegations, reduced the fines for the miners’ deaths to $3,000. In the eyes of the court, the life of a miner was worth no more than $230!
Bush’s policies are not unique—rather they are the culmination of policies that have been carried out by both big business parties, at the national as well as the state level. The Democrats, who have controlled the governor’s office in the state capital of Charleston for 21 of the last 25 years, have overseen the destruction of working conditions and living standards in the state, while pandering to the same corporate interests as the Republicans.
From the Village Voice
Mine Safety a Matter of Politics
Lax enforcement from Washington is no accident
by James Ridgeway
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Upshur County coal mine where 13 miners were trapped, just outside Tallmansville, West Virginia, has had a rash of safety problems. The Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette reports the Sago Mine had a "history of roof falls and serious safety violations."
Sago management claims the explosion underground resulted from a lightning strike, but there is skepticism about whether lighting could have followed a circuitous path into the mine. Five of the 13 trapped workers are 50 years of age or older, and one of them is 61.
Skepticism about the lightning explanation grew after company officials admitted they had called federal and state mine-safety personnel before calling 911.
These accidents and violations recorded in government records took place at a time when the coal industry was ramping up to handle the energy crisis, and when critics claim health and safety standards have been downgraded.
The Upshur dig is nonunion. In 2004, the Sago Mine reported an injury rate three times that of similar-sized small mines nationwide, the Gazette said. Last year, the Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which then was running the mine, paid $24,000 for 200 alleged violations. In the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported a dozen accidental roof falls, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Three of those accidents occurred after International Coal Group finished buying the mine and ramped up production.
Janet Keating, co-director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in West Virginia, said in an interview, "Partly the problem is that the current administration is pro-coal and pro-energy. It gets so much funding from campaign contributions from these industries."
Out of $2.3 million in contributions to federal candidates during the 2004 election cycle, coal companies put up $2.3 million with 90 percent going to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So, Keating said, politicians toe the coal industry line, claiming on the one hand that coal production is one of the most regulated industries in the country, while on the other making it impossible for regulators to enforce those regulations. "Doesn't matter if it's surface or underground," she said. "Federal and state agencies do not have enough funding. Mandates come down from the top."
Asked about the lightning theory by the Daily Mail, Davitt McAteer, top mine safety official in the Clinton administration, said, "It's possible. I can remember 10 instances of having seals blown out because of heavy thunderstorms through southern Alabama," he said. "I have read and known about lightning hitting a radio antenna or something and jumping to a metal pipe and it goes down and looks for an exit and can't find one and then it knocks out seals."
He added, "I have not known of one to cause the type of explosion we're talking about here."