The only thing more predictable than the deaths of those 12 miners in the Sago coal mine was the Bush administration’s rush to exploit a tragedy that they helped foster.
Over the past five years, Big Coal has benefited from the blind eye that Washington regulators have turned to their rampages across Appalachia. The cost of such official laxity is borne by decapitated mountains, buried and polluted streams, and hundreds of miners who have been 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 will sign up for the most dangerous kind of work with few questions asked about the risks or the precautions taken by the companies. And that’s exactly the way Big Coal wants it.
Since Bush came to office, 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 at the mine, ranging from the accumulation of flammable coal dust to ceiling collapses.
The accident rate at Sago was atrocious. 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. Last year was even worse. In 2005, Sago’s accident rate spiked to 17.04, with at least 14 miners injured.
But these citations and accidents came without regulatory bite. Most of them resulted only in minor fines of $60. In total, the mine was hit with only $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 13 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 per cent 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. Few questions asked. Even in the aftermath of the Sago disaster there have been 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 that the 12 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 safe level) .
Of course, the Democrats offer the miners almost no relief from this dire situation. 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: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.