PEOPLES HEALTH: Mineworker president on coal tragedies

(PAI) — Putting “the coal industry in charge” of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is leading to dangerous conditions for the nation’s coal miners, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told lawmakers at a Jan. 23 Senate committee hearing on the Sago, W.Va. mining disaster.

MSHA “is full of former mine management executives who spend too much time trying to appease their friends, and too little time looking out for miners’ interests,” Roberts said.

Twelve miners died from high carbon monoxide levels while trapped underground after the Jan. 2 blast. A 13th miner is in the hospital. Days later, a second tragedy killed two more miners.

The underground coal industry has experienced tragedies, as well as near-tragedies, on a recurring basis, Roberts told senators.

“Just since August 2000, MSHA has records of well over 400 mine fires, ignitions, explosions and inundations that far too easily could have developed into significant disasters and fatalities. Many other incidents likely went unreported. With better regulations, more regular enforcement, and with support from the highest echelons of the agency, many of these accidents could have been prevented,” Roberts stated.

Too often MSHA’s top administrators undercut inspectors in the field, Roberts said. MSHA cited the Sago mine, which is nonunion, for more than 270 safety violations, many of them serious, in the two years before the tragedy. But it never closed Sago.

MSHA “spends too much effort at ‘compliance assistance’ and too little on enforcement,” Roberts added. Compliance assistance is a Bush administration concept, also used at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to get firms to voluntarily agree to safety measures — not mandated standards — with promise of reduced enforcement for those who go along.

“MSHA has some excellent mine health and safety experts working in field offices,” Roberts said. “Yet they have not been receiving support from those above them. Too often, an inspector will write citations and orders upon finding violations, only to have them compromised away.”

The problem, Roberts said, is MSHA could not institute basic safety rules that might have saved the miners, such as requiring mines to stock extra breathing apparatus underground.

MSHA also could require mine owners to establish a communications system, so rescue teams would know where underground miners are.

183 inspectors cut

The MSHA budget for the year ending Sept. 30 was reduced $3.5 million from three years before. The cuts forced MSHA to eliminate 183 inspectors and staff.

Bush’s MSHA yanked several proposed Clinton administration mine safety rules, including one requiring mine owners to frequently replace outdated breathing apparatus.

“I want to know if 1960s-era technology is truly the best we can offer miners today,” said Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-Iowa), son of a coal miner. Holding up an inexpensive communications device used in Australian mines, he asked why MSHA does not require U.S. mines to use it.

Another view on state health plans

The following response to last week’s column on Maine’s “Dirigo” health care plan was sent in by health care activist Don Sloan MD:

“Dirigo works” by Dr. Sara Stalman is well taken and her good intentions come through loud and clear. But while there is something to be said for any of the states promoting their individual programs as immediate aids to those in acute need, in the end, that will prove destructive to the movement. I suggest the states are better served by using their facilities, resources and personnel to see the forest instead of the trees.

The economics of the states as a part of the union (read: matching funds) just does not allow for any semblance of adequate health care. Yes, health care is cost-effective. But no state, from the wealthiest on down, has the machinery, expertise or funds to provide this vital service to its citizens, a service where inadequacy eventually does more harm than good.

As we are up against perhaps the most reactionary administration in our history, having the individual states make those vain attempts at healthcare only gives our criminally negligent feds more fodder for their cannons and allows them to pull back further, always adding that the states can carry the ball.

The lack of organized healthcare in the U.S. is a national problem that demands a national solution. Anything else is but a well-meaning waste. The individual states must only provide that stopgap acute help, always adding that the struggle for a federal program is primary. Our national hemorrhage must not be assuaged with a Band-Aid. The progressive movement has been taught that hard lesson these past decades and our successes have come about when the problem is addressed on its proper level.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.