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In the depths of the mines, party matters
By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published September 2, 2007
A lot of people tell me that they are sick of both political parties. They claim the parties are essentially the same, and it doesn't matter who is in power since both the Democrats and the Republicans are in the pocket of special interests and equally disengaged from the concerns and needs of average people.
To that I proffer this example about mine safety, something in the news lately due to the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.
Say you are a miner, a historically dangerous job in which more than 100,000 of your compatriots have perished since 1900. Whom would you want to have in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the government agency charged with inspecting mines and promulgating and enforcing safety regulations, J. Davitt McAteer, the Clinton appointee, or David Lauriski, the man selected by George W. Bush?
Here is a bit about each:
McAteer was a law student at West Virginia University when an explosion occurred at a mine near Farmington, W.Va., that killed 78 coal miners. The disaster led McAteer to organize fellow students to study the West Virginia coal industry. The resulting report helped to persuade Congress to pass a series of safety reforms under the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The act revolutionized mine safety, requiring regular inspections of underground mines, fresh air supplies for miners and fines for safety violations.
After law school, McAteer worked to develop a mine safety program for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. In 1984 he founded the Occupational Health and Safety Law Center, a public interest law firm, which is where he was working when President Clinton tapped him to head up the MSHA.
Lauriski, President Bush's choice, had a far different resume. He had spent 30 years in the service of mining companies. In 1984, Lauriski was employed by the Emery Mining Corp. in Utah when 27 people died in a mining fire. Safety violations contributed to the cause, concluded MSHA investigators. But Lauriski later defended his employer's safety operations before Congress.
In 1997, as general manager at the Energy West Mining Company, Lauriski lobbied for a substantial elevation in acceptable coal dust levels.
Due to its high combustibility, coal dust has been the root cause of a number of deadly mine accidents. But beyond that, coal dust is a demonstrated source of black lung disease, and experts at the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say the acceptable levels should be cut in half - never mind increased many fold as Lauriski wanted.
Unlike the safety enhancement agenda that McAteer pushed, Lauriski's tenure at the helm of the MSHA was marked by the slashing of regulations. According to the New York Times, the agency "rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals."
In 2004, soon after Bush's re-election, Lauriski resigned to "devote more time" to his family. It also happened to be shortly after a Labor Department inspector general report found that the agency had engaged in improper contract letting under his leadership.
Lauriski's replacement is Richard Stickler, a former coal industry executive who couldn't get confirmed even by a Republican-controlled Senate - senators expressed concerns about the safety records of the mines he managed. So, Bush bypassed Congress altogether and made a recess appointment in October 2006 to put Stickler in the top spot at the MSHA.
Now we have six men trapped for weeks in Utah's Crandall Canyon and three men who tried to rescue them, dead.
We have Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the mine and big GOP donor, who keeps insisting that an earthquake is to blame for the mine's collapse when seismologists say otherwise.
We have added the phrase "retreat mining" to our vocabulary, a process of coal extraction that sounds astoundingly dangerous even if some experts say it can be done safely. Removing the final pillars of coal that hold up the mine as one retreats out seems at best like a bad Jackass stunt.
And we have Stickler issuing cloying statements about how "pleased" he is that Murray "has agreed" to drill another borehole to see if there is anyone alive.
Where are the statements demanding that all mines be equipped with the latest communications systems, so trapped minors can be located?
To the credit of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, she has ordered an outside probe into the MSHA's response to the Aug. 6 collapse. But where are the statements promising to fully implement the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act? Miner advocates complain that MSHA has failed to meet congressionally mandated deadlines.
I'm just saying that, contrary to the view of many, there is a real difference between the political parties, and if you were a miner your life might depend on it.