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How Much is a Miner's Life Worth?

Black Hole, Black Death

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

This is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s environmental history, Born Under a Bad Sky..

The only thing more predictable than the deaths of those twelve miners in the Sago coal mine on January 2, 2006 was the Bush administration’s rush to exploit a tragedy that they helped foster.

Since 2001, Big Coal has benefited as Washington regulators have turn a blind eye to their rampages across Appalachia. The cost of such official laxity is borne by decapitated mountains, buried and polluted streams, and hundreds of miners injured and killed by an industry that has been liberated from even the most basic regulations governing worker safety and environmental protection.

The Sago miners didn’t even have the minimal protections afforded by membership in a union. In the economics of coal country these days people are so desperate for a job that they will sign up for the most dangerous kind of work while asking few questions about the risks or the precautions taken by the companies. And that’s exactly the way Big Coal wants it.

Since Bush arrived in Washington, more than 230 coal miners have perished in 206 mine accidents. Hundreds of others have been injured. Thousands suffer from chronic ailments and lung diseases caused by hazardous working conditions.

The Sago mine was a death trap. In 2005 alone, the Mine Safety and Health Administration slapped the mine with 208 citations for violations, ranging from the accumulation of flammable coal dust to ceiling collapses.

The accident rate at Sago was abysmal. In 2004, Sago had an accident rate of 15.90 accidents per 200,000 man-hours worked. This rate is nearly three times more than the national average of 5.66. The next year was even worse. In 2005, Sago’s accident rate spiked to 17.04, with at least fourteen miners injured.

But these citations and accidents came without regulatory sanction. Most of them resulted only in negligible fines. In total, the mine was hit with just $24,000 worth of penalties. It’s much cheaper to pay the fine than to fix the problems, even when the conditions are lethal. For example, in 2001 Jim Walters Resources paid only $3,000 in fines for an accident that led to the deaths of thirteen miners in Alabama. That’s $230.76 per dead miner. The company earned more than $100 million that year. Other companies have paid less than $200 in fines for fatalities linked to safety violations.

And these token fines often go unpaid by the mining companies. A review of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s records since 2000 reveals that the agency has hit the mining industry with $9.1 million in fines following fatal incidents. But the companies have paid less than 30 percent of that puny amount.

All a company has to do is appeal its fine, and it will likely be reduced. More than $5.2 million in fines have been reduced to $2.5 million following appeals. Another $2.2 million is unpaid pending appeal. The agency lists more than $1.1 million in fines as being delinquent, but most of those mines remain in operation.

Under the Bush administration, Big Coal has essentially been handed the responsibility for regulating its own behavior, with few questions asked. Even in the aftermath of the Sago disaster there were no serious calls for congressional hearings or criminal sanctions against the mine bosses and their corporate chieftains. The biggest outrage was reserved for the false report, which stated that the twelve miners had miraculously survived their ordeal in the poisonous pit, where carbon monoxide levels had reached 1,300 parts per million, more than three times the maximum safety level.

Naturally, the Democrats offer the miners almost no relief. In the 2004 presidential campaign, when the election hinged on results from the coal belt, John Kerry wrote off the mining country of southeast Ohio and West Virginia, counties burdened by the highest unemployment in country, and lost by landslide margins to Bush.

If you’re going to tie black ribbon on the gates of the White House, you might as well wrap one around a tree outside one of the Kerry-Heinz mansions, as well. Neither party gave a damn about the lives of those men.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

 

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