The Coal Patrol: Mine Safety Deserves More Than Lip Service

Every step forward in underground U.S. mine safety in the 20th and 21st centuries has been on the backs of mangled and dead coal miners. That grisly observation is unassailable. Following the August tragedy at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah that killed six miners and three would-be rescuers, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will probably severely restrict new mining operations 1,800 feet below the surface in seismically active regions and impose new rules on existing deep mines as well.

And well MSHA should. A limit on deep mines in seismic areas will have a limited impact on coal supply and prices because the geology is confined to a small area, according to federal scientists.

Change Is in the Air

Political pressure is building in Washington to go beyond this narrow response and mount a stronger attack on coal mine safety risks than the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) act, passed in 2006 on the heels of deadly disasters at the Sago and Aracoma Alma mines in West Virginia. Already, congressional committees have scheduled hearings that will likely carry over into the election year of 2008 to pressure the Bush administration to increase mine safety scrutiny.

But American coal mine owners and operators still don’t get it. Historically, they have been totally reactionary with respect to underground mine safety (and almost everything else, including child labor, unions, and environmental protection). Fortunately, they have consistently lost the battle against advances in mine safety, from the 1950s to today.

It’s not that mine operators are evil people. They’re not — but, as purveyors of a global commodity, they are extremely bottom-line oriented. Their actions are based solely on risk-reward calculations that value profits much more than safety gains, which are inherently hard to quantify on that basis. They talk about their commitment to mine safety but too often fail to walk that talk.

Resistance, If Futile

My thoughts turned to mine safety after I read a recent article in Coal Age magazine describing how coal companies are digging in their heels against MSHA’s attempts to implement the 2006 MINER act, which passed with industry support.

Coal Age reported that the owner/operators’ anger overflowed into public forums at two industry meetings in Pittsburgh during the summer of ’06. The companies were upset that new MSHA temporary rules for mine entry seals would impose "tens of millions of dollars" in costs and were a political response not justified by engineering and science.

MSHA chief Richard E. Stickler, facing intense opposition from the mining companies, withdrew as a speaker at one of the meetings at the last minute, the magazine reported. Stickler, by the way, was the coal’s industry’s choice for the MSHA job and was installed via a recess appointment because the Democrats wouldn’t support him, claiming he was beholden to the coal companies.

Coal Age editorialized, "Stickler has created regulatory chaos by over-reacting to the tragedies that occurred last year. In the process, he has put MSHA and other agencies at risk and jeopardized the underground coal business."

The magazine reported that coal industry executives, angered by the new MSHA rules, were advising noncooperation with the agency and with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The magazine reported (accurately, I’m sure) that industry officials advised eschewing NIOSH advice in writing risk management plans.

How embarrassing. The magazine went to press just before the seismic-related (the industry calls them "bumps" and "bounces") collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Given what happened in 2006, and the Utah disaster this year, the MSHA could hardly be accused of "over-reacting" to the challenges of underground mine safety. I consider the Coal Age editorial typical mining industry propaganda.

Too High a Price

The U.S. underground coal industry is itself on very shaky ground when complaining about federal enforcement of its safety. After a steady downward trend in miner fatalities (largely driven by the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969) that reduced the nationwide death toll to 22 in 2005, it rose to 47 last year, the highest in more than a decade. So far in 2007, according to the MSHA, 21 coal miners have died in underground and surface mine accidents.

Do the recent deaths represent a new and disturbing counter-trend? It’s too soon to tell. But you’d think that the past two years’ figures would at least make mine operators and owners less arrogant.

Yet that attitude remains strong, based on the Coal Age report of the industry’s response to what it considers over-regulation. In it, the coal companies complain that it will cost them $40 million to comply with the MSHA’s temporary entry-seal rules alone. I consider such complaints corporate "crocodile tears." The U.S. coal industry is booming, on the surface and underground. Companies are making record profits. Even if it does cost $40 million to meet the new standard (not likely), the expenditure would be chump change to the industry if shared by the owner/operators of America’s 300-plus underground mines (out of 700, total).

As a result, today coal companies are as credible as sub-prime mortgage lenders, used car dealers, and journalists. Unfortunately, that’s largely been the history of the industry — and its own fault.

Here’s how bad it now is for the coal guys. The owner of the Crandall Canyon mine had been insisting up to the end that the mine was safe, and that an earthquake far below it caused the roof to fall. Most experts rejected that analysis.

Safety Semantics

Crandall Canyon was a small operation. The company was mining out panels that had been left by previous longwall operations by other owners, an operation that the MSHA approved. The mine was in the process of shutting down, expecting to end operations in 2008, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. It produced only about 600,000 tons in 2006.

Today coal companies are as credible as sub-prime mortgage lenders, used car dealers, and journalists.

"Retreat" mining can be dangerous, because in doing so miners plunder the pillars that hold up the roof. But it is a common industry practice because it can be done safely, if appropriate precautions are taken. Bob Murray, Crandall Canyon’s owner, has repeatedly denied that the mine was practicing retreat mining — but that’s just a semantical interpretation of the mine’s MSHA permit. Indeed, the Tribune reported that Murray told state regulators last year that miners were "pulling pillars" as they prepared for next year’s shutdown.

The New York Times reported that after a team of rescuers was clobbered by a temblor-induced collapse 10 days after the initial cave-in, "At a news conference almost drowned out by explosive thunder and heavy rain, state and federal authorities appeared shocked by the turn of events." According to the newspaper, Stickler claimed that the strongest measures possible had been taken to protect the rescuers, but "obviously [they were] not adequate."

In Washington, Elaine Chao — head of the U.S. Department of Labor, the MSHA’s overseer — commented on the second tragedy as follows, "These brave men — one of them a Mine Safety and Health Administration professional — made the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live." In my opinion, Chao’s statement, almost certainly written by an underling, was entirely devoid of meaning or emotion. How does the death of 53-year-old MSHA inspector Gary Jensen contribute to saving the lives of underground miners in the future?

Chao’s statement epitomizes bureaucratic and vapid buck-passing. By the way (and I don’t mean this as an ad hominem attack), I’m pretty sure that Chao is labor secretary only because her husband is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky, a major coal-producing state. Chao, a smart and experienced public servant who formerly headed the U.S. Peace Corps and United Way of America, has no pertinent experience to qualify her for her present post.

Utah Gov. John Huntsman, a conservative, business-oriented Republican, apparently was traumatized by the colossal tragedy in his home state. Huntsman called off sending additional rescue teams into the mine. "We have already experienced enough in terms of pain," he said. Huntsman promised an "unprecedented and comprehensive" investigation into the disaster and rescue efforts.

Get That House in Order

The U.S. coal industry also can bet that the Democratic Congress, which (other than Robert Byrd) has little love for it, will be probing deeply into the catastrophic events in Utah in August. Consequently, the industry would do well to abandon its pugnacious stance toward federal regulators, realizing that its intransigence undermines its favored position. Huntsman is a clear example at the state level. He had been an industry supporter but now is prepared to put coal’s feet to the fire for political advantage.

Compared to the industry and the rest of the Labor Department hierarchy, Stickler has shown he’s a stand-up guy. He rushed to the scene in Utah and was obviously emotionally devastated by the events, including the death of one of his employees. On the public radio show, "To The Point," both Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association’s (NMA’s) safety lobbyist, and Davitt McAteer, former MSHA chief in the Clinton administration, praised Stickler’s performance in Utah. Neither significantly criticized MSHA’s performance there.

The NMA seems to gets it. Its CEO, Kraig Naasz, said after the rescue operation failed, "We remain committed to returning each and every miner home safely after each and every shift and will redouble our efforts to ensure we achieve this goal."

The coal operators should be echoing their Washington lobby. They must understand that their attitudes are firmly stuck in the 19th century.

Naasz added, "To that end, we pledge complete implementation of the Mine Improvement and New Energy Response Act of 2006 and the recommendations of the Independent Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission and to continue our ongoing cooperative efforts with [NIOSH and MSHA]."

The coal operators should be echoing their Washington lobby. They must understand that their attitudes are firmly stuck in the 19th century. Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — and the Bush administration support the MINER law and MSHA regulations. The coal industry proved by its performance in the decades following 1969 that it could become much safer. Now, it must remember that safety regulation (as opposed to economic regulation) was the major driver of that turnaround.

The industry must also recognize that its safety performance has declined recently, although the cause is not clear (it could be circumstance, but I doubt it). There is no support anywhere in society for the coal industry’s complaints about over-regulation by MSHA. The idea is laughable.

Coal mine fatalities, after a multi-decade downward trend, are going up. This is no time for mine operators to challenge regulators. But it is high time they challenged themselves to do better.

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