Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Utah Mine Accident and MSHA

We've all seen the pictures of rescuers trying to reach six miners trapped in a Utah coal mine . . . and the anguished faces of family members who realize that nine days after the mine's collapse, time is running out on a happy ending to this latest episode in the dangerous history of pulling coal from the earth. Each time this happens the nation pauses to watch and wait, while film crews rush to some remote spot in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Utah to wait for a conclusion, happy or otherwise. Pundits will argue again the salient points in the debate over mine safety, while expertly coiffed "reporters" interview scared family members. What's particularly troubling about the latest accident, however, is the sharply focused conclusion that this tragedy could have been avoided. We now know, for example, that back in March, two sections of the mine collapsed. Some mine experts see this prior collapse as an early warning of more serious problems to come and argue that the mine should have been closed at that point.

Apparently coal was extracted from the Crandall Canyon mine using a common but dangerous method called "retreat mining," a method so unsafe that many mining companies no longer use it. Bob Murray, head of Murray Energy Corp., claims that no "retreat mining" was carried out at Crandall Canyon since his company had acquired the mine a year ago. The veracity of that claim remains to be seen. More immediately troubling is the fact that the Mine Safety and Health Administration had cleared Crandall Canyon for further mining since March and had even approved the use of "retreat mining" on the site. How can this happen, one asks? How can one group of independent mining experts question the safety of a mining operation while the government agency responsible for regulating the coal industry and its safety rubber stamps an "ok" for that same operation? These are questions the families of those six miners will doubtless ask in the coming months.

At least one of the answers won't be too hard to divine. Indeed, this event, and the role of the federal government's Mine Safety and Health Administration, underscore the inability of the Bush administration to separate politics from the best interests - and wellbeing - of the American people. Time and time again over the last six-plus years the Bush White House has placed political appointees in positions of responsibility that directly affect the health and welfare of working Americans. This has been most obvious at OSHA, which has lost much of its regulatory effectiveness thanks to a Bush-loyal staff populated with industry insiders and former lobbyists. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) suffered the same fate, its leadership having been handed over to appointees loyal to "big coal" and the power companies that buy their product. Once again, safety has been compromised in the interest of maximizing profits for industries that pour millions into Republican campaign chests.

Watching General Electric's commercials depicting a lump of coal jogging and exercising through Central Park - an effort to bolster GE's investment in "clean coal" technologies - one could be forgiven for concluding that coal is the energy solution for America's future. And why not? U.S. coal reserves are large enough to prompt some analysts to call America the "Saudi Arabia of coal." What this "clean coal" propaganda hides, however, is the reality that burning coal still produces far more pollution than utilizing other energy sources. In addition, most new coal plants - and some at which construction has just started - employ 1970s-era technology and promise scant reduction in emissions. Moreover, the process of extracting that coal is extremely harmful to the environment, especially in areas in which coal is removed by simply dynamiting the tops off of mountains.

As for those mines that still employ men crawling underground in the most hazardous working conditions imaginable, no argument should allow us to conclude that this is "clean coal" for a brighter energy future. Under these circumstances, we as consumers now enjoy the fruits of workers laboring under medieval conditions, conditions that are only minimally regulated thanks to a pro-business, anti-regulatory administration occupying the White House. The families of the six Utah miners should travel to Washington and camp themselves in front of the White House, demanding answers. In a just world, the president would listen to their grievances and indignantly demand an investigation of MSHA and the mining company responsible for the conditions that lead to the miners' deaths. Unfortunately, ours is not a just world.

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