Saturday, January 07, 2006

Bush Administrations Fails In Mine Oversight

Surprise, surprise, the Bush administration doesn't give a shit if a mine is unsafe for workers and operates with hundreds of safety violations. The story is from Knight-Ridder:

WASHINGTON - Since the Bush administration took office in 2001, it has been more lenient toward mining companies facing serious safety violations, issuing fewer and smaller major fines and collecting less than half of the money that violators owed, a Knight Ridder Newspapers investigation has found.

At one point last year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration fined a coal company a scant $440 for a "significant and substantial" violation that ended in the death of a Kentucky man. The firm, International Coal Group Inc., is the same company that owns the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 workers died earlier this week.

The $440 fine remains unpaid.

Relaxed mine safety enforcement is widespread, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of federal records and interviews with former and current federal safety officials, even though deaths and injuries from mining accidents have hovered near record low levels in the past few years.

The analysis shows:

-The number of major fines over $10,000 has dropped by nearly 10 percent since 2001. The dollar amount of those penalties, when adjusted for inflation, has plummeted 43 percent to a median of $27,584.

-Less than half of the fines levied between 2001 and 2003 - about $3 million - have been paid.

-The budget and staff for the enforcement office also have declined, forcing the agency to make do with about 100 fewer coal mine enforcement personnel.

-In serious criminal cases, the number of guilty pleas and convictions fell 54.8 percent since 2001. In the first four years of the Bush administration, the federal government has averaged 3.5 criminal convictions a year; in the four years before that the average was 7.75 per year.

Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Labor didn't respond by Friday evening to a list of 13 e-mail questions or to a request for an interview.

Davitt McAteer, who headed the mine safety agency during the Clinton administration, said it has become a "paper tiger."

"The numbers indicate that they haven't had as much in the area of enforcement," said McAteer, now a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University. "It suggests that the whole system is kind of bogging down."

McAteer said that without the stick of high fines, mandated payments of those penalties and consistent follow-up inspections, there's little incentive for companies to repair safety problems.

The mine safety agency touts on its Web site statistics showing the agency's "overall record of increased enforcement against mine operators during this Administration."

Those statistics show that in 2005, the agency issued 4 percent more violation notices for all mines than it did in 2000 and that the number of coal mine violations issued increased by 18 percent. The agency also touted a 13 percent increase in "significant and substantial" violations.

But those numbers hide the fact that most of those fines are so small that they're meaningless to big coal and mining companies, said Dennis O'Dell, a health and safety administrator for the United Mine Workers of America union.

"It's not enough to scare the companies to take care of business," O'Dell said. "A $55 fine for a coal company means nothing when they're making millions upon millions of dollars."

Earnie Williams, 65, was killed when a chunk of frozen coal slurry rocketed out of a clogged pipe, ricocheted and hit him in the head. The company, ICG, was faulted for not having procedures on how to unclog frozen pipes and was fined $440.

"The $440 fine charged to the company is a ridiculous figure to compare to someone's life or to deter the company from future unsafe practices," Williams' daughter, Karla Smith of Hindman, Ky., wrote in an e-mail to Knight Ridder. "How does anyone expect ICG to correct hazardous and potentially deadly practices when a pocket-change fine is issued after such an occurrence?"

At a diner in Stepptown, W.Va., retired miner Charles Crum said the rewards are too high and risks too low for mining companies to worry about safety rules.

"But if you're selling that coal for $67 a ton and the most you can be fined is $200, what are you going to do?" Crum said. "You're going ahead and mine that coal."

Funny thing is, I bet most of the people affected by the lack of government oversight of mines, specifically the dead miners and their families, voted for George W. Bush both times around.

The very same George W. Bush who cares more about corporate profits than he does human life, the same one who allows his government to levy penny ante fines for serious mine violations while cutting both the budget and staff of the enforcement office of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?