A Times Editorial
Under current regulations, fines for safety violations are so low that it's cheaper for mining companies to pay them than to fix the problems.
Mine safety is the topic of the day in West Virginia and on Capitol Hill since 16 miners have died in four separate accidents. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin called a temporary halt to mining in his state until emergency safety measures are taken, and Congress is considering a federal response. They might start by looking at the low value government agencies put on a miner's life.
Research by USA Today found that maximum fines allowed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration are among the lowest in the federal regulatory bureaucracy. For example, the total fine against Jim Walter Resources in a 2001 accident that left 13 Alabama miners dead was $435,000, and a judge later reduced that to $3,000, the newspaper reported. That pales compared with the $550,000 fine levied against TV stations that aired the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in which Janet Jackson exposed her breast.
Makers of unsafe consumer products face maximum fines for individual violations of $1.8-million. Those who violate rules established by the Federal Communications Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission or Environmental Protection Agency - which are unlikely to threaten loss of life - face fines that can top $1-million.
The maximum fine for a mine-safety violation is $60,000. The Sago mine, where 12 miners died in January, was cited for 198 safety violations in 2005 (95 of them serious) yet it was fined only $26,000. It's cheaper for mining companies to ignore safety and pay the fines.
"It's like fining you or me 25 cents for a speeding violation," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety adviser in the Clinton administration, which enforced mining rules more aggressively than the Bush administration.
In fact, David Dye, current acting director of the federal mine-safety office, downplayed the need for tougher fines in testimony before a Senate panel. Closing part of a mine is a more powerful action, he said. So why did Sago owners, who had 18 partial shutdowns last year, not get the message?
The mining industry is certain to argue against stiff fines, and it apparently has a sympathetic ear in the Bush administration. Yet a miner's life is devalued under the current system. There is really only one thing that is going to get the mining industry's attention: fines that hurt the owners rather than the miners.