In the wake of the West Virgina mine tragedy troubling revelations are emerging about the safety record of the Sago Mine which claimed the lives of twelve miners the other day — the lone survivor still in a coma and possibly brain-damaged.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Nearly half of the 208 safety citations levied in 2005 against the Sago coal mine where 12 men died this week were “serious and substantial.”

Federal inspectors found 20 dangerous roof-falls, 14 power wire insulation problems, and three cases of inadequate ventilation plans, among the 96 major violations.

Sago’s “S&S” violations, which rose fourfold in 2005 over 2004, form a pattern that worries safety experts, who say it raises serious questions about mine management – and the efficacy of government inspections.

Despite major safety strides in recent decades, mining remains one of the nation’s most dangerous jobs. And it’s not unusual for mines to be cited for violations of the 1977 Mine Safety Act. But Sago’s record, some say, should have raised red flags…

During the last quarter of 2005, for instance, federal inspectors at Sago cited or ordered the company to fix 50 safety violations – 19 of them serious and substantial. As a result, the company was fined $24,374 last year. It also recorded 39 accidents in 2005, 16 with injuries requiring days away from work.

Inspectors also noted lesser violations such as electrical equipment maintenance, accumulations of coal dust, inadequate fresh air ventilation of the coal-face, and too few methane monitors. (It is still not known what caused the explosion that trapped and killed the miners.)

…The 2005 [violation] total was more than triple the 68 tallied in 2004.

Despite this record, the entire mine was never ordered closed for a safety overhaul…

How was all this possible? Is there any significance to the progressively declining safety record after 2004?
A lengthy New York Times 2004 special report (this link does not require a subscription; for Times subscribers, go here) seems eerily relevant today:

MINES TO MOUNTAINTOPS: Rewriting Coal Policy; Friends in the White House Come to Coal’s Aid

Excerpts of the article by Christopher Drew and Richard A. Opal follow:

In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.

Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official — Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease.

The reintroduction of the coal dust measure came after the federal agency had abandoned a series of Clinton-era safety proposals favored by coal miners while embracing others favored by mine owners.

The agency’s effort to rewrite coal regulations is part of a broader push by the Bush administration to help an industry that had been out of favor in Washington… the Bush administration’s approach to coal mining has been a particularly potent example of the blend of politics and policy.

In addition to Mr. Lauriski, who spent 30 years in the coal industry, Mr. Bush tapped a handful of other industry executives and lobbyists to help oversee safety and environmental regulations.

In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners’ jobs safer, including steps to limit miners’ exposure to toxic chemicals…

…The Bush administration’s efforts to change the rules have led to battles with labor unions and environmentalists. Congress and the courts have stepped in to temporarily block some of the initiatives, including the coal dust measure.

”They generally want to do whatever the industry wants,” said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and member of the House Resources Committee who has been a critic of the administration’s regulation of the industry. ”You don’t even have to change the law. You can change the regulations and don’t do enforcement.”

<P…Environmentalists…contend that Bush appointees have shifted the government's focus to expediting approvals of new mining permits from limiting the size of the mines.

…Critics say… that the administration’s support for coal shows how it has catered to industries that have contributed heavily to Republicans.

…Over the last six years, coal companies have donated $9 million to federal political candidates and party organizations, and 90 percent has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

…On a rainy day in August 2000, with polls showing that he had a chance to carry West Virginia, Mr. Bush stopped in Charleston to rally support. Just before he left, he paused on the airport tarmac for a brief meeting that helped lay the seeds for the changes in environmental rules that favor the Appalachian coal industry.

In a roped-off area behind the rental cars, Bill Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group, and Dick Kimbler, who headed a local chapter of the mine workers union, told Mr. Bush about layoffs at mountaintop mines. They said they also complained that a growing emphasis on environmental protection was delaying the approval of mining permits and eliminating jobs.

Mr. Bush replied that the problems underscored the need to develop a national energy policy, the other men said. Less than two hours later, Donald L. Evans, then Mr. Bush’s campaign chairman and now the commerce secretary, called Mr. Raney, who said they talked about making the permitting process less cumbersome.

Mr. Raney and Mr. Kimbler then created the Balanced Energy Coalition, an industry group that persuaded many coal miners to back Mr. Bush. They also worked with the state’s most prolific Republican fund-raiser, James H. Harless, a coal operator who collected $275,000 for Mr. Bush, five times what Mr. Gore raised in the entire state.

…Over the last two and a half years, the administration has changed one environmental regulation and announced plans to weaken another. And when officials released a new draft of the impact statement in May 2003, environmentalists were outraged…

The Bush administration dropped the Clinton effort to limit the size of the valley fills. Instead, it called for more coordination among state and federal agencies to simplify the permitting process and minimize environmental harm.

As a result, permits for mountaintop mines started flowing again last year, with 14 approved in West Virginia, up from just 3 in 2002…

No one will ever know if the Sago mine disaster could have been avoided, but it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the industry-friendly policies of this administration coupled with its seeming disregard for safety and environmental concerns is not without its consequences.

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