Monday, February 06, 2006


Twelve miners who died in the Sago mine are remembered

(This column will run in the 2/9/2006 THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

In 2001, President Bush appointed David Lauriski to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). A former mining executive, Lauriski spent the next years rescinding "more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals." Lauriski resigned in scandal in late 2004 shortly after it was found that the agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts to several firms, two of which had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants...

Mine safety standards have been rolled back over the last five years. Under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn, ... The administration has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure, The Government Accountability Office in 2003 faulted MSHA for "failing to follow through when it found violations," and said the agency did "not provide adequate oversight" to ensure that inspectors were enforcing compliance. The Labor Department Inspector General found similar problems in 2002.”


Americans are suffering from an overload of bad news these days, much of it tied to congenital incompetence at the highest levels of government. The most recent round of elections in Iraq had done nothing to stem the violence there, and we hadn’t even started rebuilding New Orleans, when reports came from West Virginia of a mining disaster just after New Year’s. We all held our breaths and hoped against hope that the miners trapped underground by an explosion would be saved in time. Many of us woke up to see headlines of the miners being saved, only to learn that the news reports were in error and all but one of the 13 trapped miners had died.

After those stories receded from the front pages, we were jolted awake by new reports of other mining fatalities in West Virginia-- two here, two more there-- until finally a frustrated and angry West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin declared a day long shutdown for safety checks in all of West Virginia’s mines.

What went wrong? The problem, as we have been accustomed to discovering the past few years, started at the top levels of the Bush Administration. The official cause of death of the 12 miners on January 2nd was suffocation from carbon monoxide poisoning. But by now we ought to know better. The trapped miners may have died because of overlooked and unenforced safety violations in a mine which had over 200 of them the prior year. They may have died because rescue teams which could have got to them in time had been dismantled or laid off by the Bush Administration in its assault on safety regulations which might cut into business profits. The New York Times reported that:

“... some of the miners, who survived at least ten hours after the explosion, might have been saved if rescue efforts had begun earlier. Federal law requires mines to have two rescue teams available, "but does not require mines to have their own rescue teams as long as another team can arrive on site within two hours." The first rescue teams in Sago "did not enter the mine until more than 11 hours after the explosion." This precise scenario had been a concern for years. The Charleston Gazette analysis found concerns over the last decade that the mine rescue system "is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms." Yet in 2002, in direct contravention to recommendations of the Clinton administration in 1999, then-MSHA director Dave Lauriski "halted work on revising MSHA's 15-year old mine rescue regulation."

What is undisputed in this disaster is that Dave Lauriski, like lethally incompetent FEMA Director Michael Brown before him, was carrying out the Bush Administration’s core philosophy of cutting or stifling government safety regulations and laying off essential government oversight employees while allowing the industry to (insert laugh track here) “police itself.” Whether it’s sudden death or slow death, the Bush Administration’s version of “freedom of choice” seems to be that it will allow Americans to pick their poison. Just last week the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) had egg on its face when the EPA’s own scientific panel objected to the agency's proposed public health standards governing soot and dust. The Los Angeles Times reports that:

“The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee asserted Friday that the standards put forward by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson ignored most of the committee's earlier recommendations and could lead to additional heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory ailments....Johnson proposed to exempt rural areas and mining and agriculture industries from standards governing larger coarse particles, and he declined to adopt the panel's proposed haze reduction standards....Some panel members called the administrator's actions "egregious" and said his proposals "twisted" or "misrepresented" their recommendations....It was the first time since the committee was established under the Clean Air Act nearly 30 years ago that the committee had asked the EPA to change course, according to EPA staffers and committee members.... committee Chairwoman Rogene Henderson, an inhalation toxicologist said their action was necessary because "the response of the administrator is unprecedented in that he did not take our advice. It's most unusual for him not to take the advice of his own science advisory body."

The Sago Mine which killed 12 miners on January 2, 2006, had 208 safety citations in 2005, over four times the number from the previous year, and many of the safety violations were "serious and substantial," such as roof-falls. Said former MSHA Administrator Davitt McAteer, "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." "The mine should have simply been closed," said Jack Spadaro, a former MSHA inspector who was granted federal whistle-blower status four years ago.

The worst part of the disaster was that it might have been prevented- if the MSHA hadn’t cut the emergency response teams available and dismantled the emergency response team based on Morgantown, West Virginia. The mining disaster should not have shocked observers of the Bush Administration’s familiar policy of appointing cronies, incompetents, and industry insiders (occasionally they get an appointee who is all three) to police their former employers. Scott Lilly reported in American Progress that:

“... Lauriski is best remembered at MSHA for his attempt to push through a change in regulations governing coal dust levels that he proposed and lobbied on behalf of as a senior executive with Energy West Mining Company of Utah. Since the change uniquely benefited only his former employer, it was opposed by not only the Mine Workers but also mine operators other than Energy West. Lauriski was able to side with the other mine operators on a host of other regulatory changes detrimental to worker safety. According to the New York Times, MSHA under his direction “rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.”

Lilly reports that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is now also controlled by those dedicated to its downfall and disdainful of the lives and health of ordinary Americans:

“Jonathan L. Snare (acting director of OSHA) brings credentials to OSHA that should give pause to any working family watching television coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Before arriving at the Labor Department, Snare was a lawyer and lobbyist in the Texas-based firm of Jackson and Walker, LLP, a firm claiming to specialize in, among other things, “appropriate discipline of employees” and “union avoidance campaigns. Among his clients was Metabolife International, the leading provider of the weight loss supplement Ephedra, which was eventually banned after the Food and Drug Administration received numerous reports of deaths linked to its ingestion. A criminal investigation of the company was launched following an FDA request to the Justice Department to determine if the company had made false statements regarding the supplement. Since then Metabolife and one of its cofounders has pleaded guilty to numerous counts of tax evasion. While Snare’s lobbying activity involved him in some health and safety issues—although rarely on the side of consumers or workers—he seems to have spent much of his time on politics. He served as Election Operations Vice-President of the Republican National Lawyers Committee, General Counsel to the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee and General Counsel to the Republican Party of Texas.”

With the Senate and House firmly in the grip of Republicans, we can forget about any meaningful oversight of the “Lethal Weapons” appointed by the Bush Administration. If Democrats don’t take back Congress this year, America can expect another three years of disasters, deaths, and declining health as the likes of Brown (FEMA), Johnson (EPA), Lauriski (MSHA), and Snare (OSHA) are free to ruin the federal agencies charged with protecting our lives and our health.


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