[Marxism] Behind the rash of mining accidents

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 2 07:23:29 MST 2006


NY Times, March 2, 2006
U.S. Is Reducing Safety Penalties for Mine Flaws
By IAN URBINA and ANDREW W. LEHREN

CRAIGSVILLE, W.Va. — In its drive to foster a more cooperative relationship 
with mining companies, the Bush administration has decreased major fines 
for safety violations since 2001, and in nearly half the cases, it has not 
collected the fines, according to a data analysis by The New York Times.

Federal records also show that in the last two years the federal mine 
safety agency has failed to hand over any delinquent cases to the Treasury 
Department for further collection efforts, as is supposed to occur after 
180 days.

With the deaths of 24 miners in accidents in 2006, the enforcement record 
of the Mine Safety and Health Administration has come under sharp scrutiny, 
and the agency is likely to face tough questions about its performance at a 
Senate oversight hearing on Thursday.

"The Bush administration ushered in this desire to develop cooperative ties 
between regulators and the mining industry," said Tony Oppegard, a top 
official at the agency in the Clinton administration. "Safety has certainly 
suffered as a result."

A spokesman for the agency, Dirk Fillpot, defended its record, pointing out 
that last year the coal industry had 22 fatalities, the lowest number in 
its history.

"Safety is definitely improving," Mr. Fillpot said.

A spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, Carol Raulston, agreed.

"The agency realized in recent years that you can't browbeat operators into 
improved safety, and this general approach has worked," Ms. Raulston said. 
"The tragic events of this year have given everyone pause. But I don't 
think it means we want to abandon what we have found works."

Federal records show that fatalities across all types of mining have stayed 
relatively stable. In each of the last three years, 55 to 57 miners have 
died in all areas of mining. Experts say a long-term decline in coal mine 
fatalities is in part a result of growing mechanization.

Mr. Fillpot also said delinquent cases had not moved to the Treasury 
Department since 2003 because of computer problems. He could not say when 
the problems would be corrected. "Referrals from M.S.H.A. to the Treasury 
Department have been impacted by technical issues on both ends, which we 
are working to resolve while maintaining an aggressive record on 
enforcement and collections," he said.

Although the agency has recently trumpeted Congressional plans to raise the 
maximum penalties, federal records indicate that few major fines are issued 
at the maximum level. In 2004, the number of major fines issued at maximum 
level was one in 10, down from one in 5 in 2003.

Since 2001, the median for penalties that exceed $10,000, described as 
"major fines," has dropped 13 percent, to $21,800 from $25,000.

Also troubling, critics say, is that fines are regularly reduced in 
negotiations between mine operators and the agency. From 2001 to 2003, more 
than two-thirds of all major fines were cut from the original amount that 
the agency proposed. Most of the more recent cases are enmeshed in appeals, 
so it is impossible to know whether that trend has continued.

"The agency keeps talking about issuing more fines, but it doesn't matter 
much," said Bruce Dial, a former inspector for the mine safety agency. "The 
number of citations means nothing when the citations are small, negotiable 
and most often uncollected."

Before the January disaster at the Sago Mine near here, where 12 miners 
died, the operator had been cited 273 times since 2004. None of the fines 
exceeded $460, roughly one-thousandth of 1 percent of the $110 million net 
profit reported last year by the current owner of the mine, the 
International Coal Group.

[At a House oversight hearing on Wednesday, agency officials repeatedly 
cited the frequency of fines against Sago in the year before the accident 
as proof of aggressive enforcement. Exasperated, Representative Lynn 
Woolsey, Democrat of California, replied that maybe those fines had little 
effect because many were for $60. That point set off applause from audience 
members.]

"Most fines are so small that they are seen not as deterrents but as the 
cost of doing business," said Wes Addington, a lawyer with the Appalachian 
Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., which handles mine safety cases. 
Using federal records, Mr. Addington released a study in January indicating 
that since 1995 nearly a third of the active underground mines in Kentucky 
had failed to pay their fines.

"Operators know that it's cheaper to pay the fine than to fix the problem," 
Mr. Addington said. "But they also know the cheapest of all routes is to 
not pay at all. It's pretty galling."

Larry Williams, who now lives in Craigsville, 50 miles east of Charleston, 
knows this frustration well. In 2002, he was working with a fellow miner, 
Gary Martin, in a deep mine near Rupert, 25 miles south of here, when the 
roof collapsed on them. Mr. Martin died instantly, and Mr. Williams was 
trapped for more than four hours under several thousand pounds of rock that 
crushed his pelvis and both legs.

The men had been pillaring, or second mining, which involves extracting the 
last remaining coal in tunnels by scraping it from the coal pillars used to 
hold up the roof. This method is considered extremely dangerous. Federal 
regulations aim to reduce the risk.

In this case, federal investigators found that the regulations were not 
followed. The operators were fined $165,000. Those fines have not been 
paid, even though the mine owner, Midland Trail Resources, which did not 
reply to requests for comment, remains in business, according to state records.

"It makes me mad," said Mr. Williams, 50, who is paralyzed through much of 
his right side. "One dead and another man's life ruined, and they pay 
nothing? It just doesn't make sense."

On Feb. 14, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, introduced a 
measure to raise the maximum penalty that the mine safety agency can assess 
for failing to eliminate violations that cause death or serious injury, to 
$500,000, from the current $60,000.

The law would also prohibit administrative law judges from reducing fines 
for violations deemed flagrant or habitual.

Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, an independent 
newsletter that covers the industry, said that although the law was a 
positive step, one regulation that continued to need attention allowed 
fines to be lowered for smaller or financially troubled mines.

"The result of that provision is that it helps keep some habitual offenders 
in business," Ms. Smith said.

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said 
changes in the law were vital but so were changes in the agency. "If you 
don't have enforcement along with a strong law, then you don't have a law," 
Mr. Roberts said. "The current agency mentality is to cooperate with mine 
operators rather than watchdog them, and safety suffers as a result."

Even when Congress passes strong safety laws, the agency can write 
regulations that work around them. In 2004, for example, after years of 
pressure from mine operators, regulators wrote a rule that let mines use 
conveyor belts not just for moving coal but also to draw in fresh air from 
outside. A law already existed preventing such safety regulations because 
of concerns that in the event of a fire, the belts would carry flames and 
deadly gases directly to the work area or vital evacuation routes.

Though the investigation is not complete, many experts say this is probably 
what occurred at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va., where 
a fire left two miners dead on Jan 21.

Mr. Fillpot said his agency was revising the regulations on imposing 
penalties. He also pointed to civil suits filed by the agency in what he 
said was an increasing effort to force operators to pay millions of dollars 
in unpaid penalties.

"You can expect to see more of these types of efforts from us in the coming 
months," Mr. Fillpot said.

Mr. Williams, the miner who is partly paralyzed, remains skeptical.

"All I know is the roof collapsed only days after a federal inspector 
looked right at those pillars and saw that the operator was having us do 
illegal things," he said. "In these mines, laws don't matter."

Ian Urbina reported from Craigsville, W.Va., and Andrew W. Lehren from New 
York.

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