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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Skepticism & Miners

Historically, the U.S. government has proven itself moderately adept at passing laws in the scrutinized aftermath of tragedy. The open question is whether, without disaster as an immediate catalyst, executive regulators and congressional overseers will do the unheralded, day-to-day work of keeping mines safe.

There are strong reasons for doubt. Federal regulators and mine officials like to point to the broad trend toward improved safety. Last year, for example, saw the lowest number of mine fatalities, 22, in U.S. history. In 1950, by comparison, 643 U.S. miners died. And yes, there are certainly other countries where things are worse. China, in an ongoing calamity, is on its way to yet another year in which more than 5,000 miners will die.

But surely the bar in the United States should be set higher than either 1950s America or present-day China. Mine safety, after all, is not the Manhattan Project.

Part of the tragedy of this year’s deaths is that so many of them were preventable – perhaps even easily preventable. At Sago, twelve miners survived an initial explosion and were able to seek a safe haven in the depths of the mine. As they were trained to do, the miners strapped on emergency breathing devices and deployed a sort of plastic sheet in an effort to barricade themselves from the poisonous gas. The barrier failed to keep out the carbon monoxide. As for the breathing devices, four of twelve failed to work properly. The ones that worked delivered only an hour’s worth of oxygen – it took rescuers 42 hours to reach the miners. Eleven of the twelve barricaded men died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Barely two weeks after the Sago disaster, a fire in a Canadian potash mine trapped 72 miners below ground. These miners retreated to a “safe room,” a sealed chamber with a cache of oxygen, water, and food. Twenty-six hours later, rescuers reached them, and every man emerged unscathed.

The inability to communicate with miners – warning them of accidents, conveying instructions, and learning of their whereabouts below ground – is another issue that has received significant attention in the debate following this year’s accidents. Australian and Canadian mines use “personal emergency devices,” a 20-year-old technology similar to a pager that can send and receive signals through rock. The device was credited with saving lives in a 1998 fire at a Utah mine, but only 30 U.S. coal mines require its use.

Other proposals for meaningful safety measures are even more low-tech. Many miners are injured or killed when fellow miners fail to see them. One suggestion is as basic as requiring all miners to wear reflective clothing.

While new laws get headlines, it’s likely that boring-old, day-to-day enforcement and oversight will be more important to miner safety than anything in Congress’s forthcoming legislation. On this count, there are significant reasons to doubt both the commitment and the vigilance of the current administration.

Political appointees in both the Department and Labor and its Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) have demonstrated an almost gleeful anti-regulation ideology – including a bias against safety regulations.

To give just a few examples, when the Bush Administration took office in 2001, it killed a draft regulation that would have increased the emergency oxygen available to miners. In the face of an advisory committee on lung disease that recommended lower amounts of respirable coal dust (which would also decrease the risk of explosions), a Bush Administration official at MSHA proposed increasing acceptable dust levels by 400%. As for the critical task of enforcement, there are 200 fewer federal inspectors today than five years ago – even as scores of new mines open and existing mines add shifts.

In the days after January’s Sago disaster, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao promised to “take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again.” Yet two weeks ago, an accident at the Kentucky Darby Mine with striking parallels to Sago resulted in the death of five miners. Like the Sago victims, three of the miners at Darby survived an explosion and were able to deploy their breathing units – the same model used at Sago. All three of the men died of carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers could reach them. One survivor of the Darby accident reported that his breathing unit provided oxygen for only five minutes.

Let’s hope that a new mine safety law and a new attitude at enforcement agencies will result in meaningful change. American miners have a right to expect that all reasonable steps are being taken to protect their safety. Sadly, history gives them considerable reason to doubt that the “blood of miners” pattern will be broken.

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