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Twelve miners killed in West Virginia
Why did profits matter more than their lives?

January 13, 2006 | Page 5

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at why the Sago Mine disaster happened.

THEY LEFT messages. After a January 2 explosion rocked the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, trapping 13 miners 260 feet below, Jim Bennett wrote out a timeline of what he experienced. Martin Toler Jr. simply wrote, "It wasn't bad. I just went to sleep. I love you."

The horror of nation's deadliest coal mining disaster in more than four years multiplied when, after nearly two days of waiting, miners' friends and family were wrongly told that 12 of the 13 were alive. Elation turned to anger when they learned--several hours later--that the opposite was true.

When they made the announcement, officials positioned a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team along the road near the church where family members were gathered because they were worried about violence. Witnesses told NBC News that one man was wrestled to the ground when he lunged at mine officials.

"There was no apology," said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, who died in the disaster. "There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door."

After more than 40 hours trapped underground, the sole survivor, 27-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., was in critical condition with a collapsed lung. The cause of the disaster was still under investigation as Socialist Worker went to press, but coalmine explosions are typically caused by the buildup of methane gas or coal dust in the air.

Anker Coal Group West Virginia Mining Co. has owned the Sago mine, which is nonunion, since 2002. In November, Anker became the property of International Coal Group (ICG), the brainchild of Wilbur Ross, a New York investor who made his fortune buying out failed and bankrupt businesses and selling them at big profits.

Ross--who is number 364 on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans--bought and sold steel and textile mills before he went into buying dilapidated coalmines like Sago in 2004. IGC now controls 11 active mining complexes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Illinois, and its revenues for the first nine months of 2005 totaled $466 million.

"Anker was in bankruptcy, so it was operating under marginal financial conditions," financial analyst Richard Price explained to Reuters. Translation: workers' safety was at the absolute bottom of the company's list of priorities.

According to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the Sago mine has had more than 270 safety citations in the last two years, 208 of them in 2005. MSHA inspectors found 46 safety violations at Sago in the last three months of 2005, including one less than two weeks before the disaster. Eighteen incidents were classified as "significant and substantial."

However, proposed fines for some 200 violations totaled just $2,286--hardly enough to convince the owners to improve working conditions. Some fines were as little as $60. "If I go down the street in Washington, D.C., at 10 mph over the speed limit, I'm going to get a much higher fine than that," United Mine Workers of America's (UMWA) Tim Baker told the Associated Press.

The mine had three roof falls since ICG's purchase was finalized in November, and 12 roof falls during the last six months. The Sago mine had an injury rate three times the national rate for that type and size of coalmine, according to the MSHA.

Nationally, mining is becoming more dangerous. From 2000 to 2005, the total number of coalmine citations issued by MSHA increased by 18 percent, from 56,983 to 67,300. Total "significant and substantial" citations increased by 13 percent, from 23,774 to 26,779.

In addition to facing dangerous and potentially deadly situations, people who work in mining are also about twice as likely as other workers to be uninsured, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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IF EVER there was work in need of strict federal regulation and oversight, it is mining. But the MSHA is far from the vigilant watchdog miners need.

Since George Bush took office, the administration has eliminated 170 MSHA jobs. And the 2006 federal budget that just passed Congress included some $4.9 million in cuts to the program. The Bush administration has even tried to take away money for victims of pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung disease, which results from constantly breathing in ash and other airborne particles.

To further his plan to gut MSHA, Bush has stacked it with his friends in the coal industry--such as former senior executives from Peabody Energy, who have held high-ranking positions.

MSHA has also instituted changes that take the teeth out of enforcement--for instance, by stressing companies' voluntary compliance with safety rules. "We are concerned that MSHA has gone from a safety enforcement agency to a compliance consulting firm," said UMWA President Cecil Roberts.

Bush is making sure that his allies in the energy industry are happy--especially the coal industry. One of his administration's first acts was to establish an energy task force, chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, to plan out a pro-coal energy strategy.

But even before that, the coal bosses spent plenty on fighting regulations. According to the Center for Public Integrity, coal producers and users contributed more than $30 million to political campaigns from 1997-2002.

In this way, they made fast friends in Washington--friends like Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat who got more than $280,000 in donations from the industry during those years, more than any other politician over the same time period. In return, Dingell fought Environmental Protection Agency attempts to issue a study that would support lower emission standards for mercury.

It's worth remembering that it was during the Clinton and Gore (not the Bush and Cheney) years that the "Reinventing Government" plan gutted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by stressing "partnership" with business and voluntary compliance.

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THE CHARLESTON Gazette editorial argued January 5, "The demand for coal is currently high, and so is the price. That creates an incentive for companies to return to marginal mines that weren't worth running in leaner times.

"It creates an incentive to reopen mines with safety problems and to try to scratch some profit out of them. It also creates the incentive to cut costs, take shortcuts, to err on the side of danger instead of caution...Until the nation gets serious about enforcing safety rules, miners and their families will continue to suffer to satisfy the nation's energy appetite."

The attack on mining safety is an assault on all workers' health and safety. According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mining industry had the second-highest fatality rate per 100,000 employees. The industry with the highest rate was agriculture--with its dangerous pesticides that poison its largely immigrant workforce.

Work-related deaths are on the rise generally in the U.S. In 2004, 5,703 fatal work injuries were recorded in the U.S., a 2 percent increase over 2003. That's because as long as Corporate America can sacrifice workers' safety for profit, they keep trying.

Unless there's a fight. As John Bennett, whose father was killed in the Sago mine, said on NBC's Today show, "We have no protection for our workers. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coalmines to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect the workers...Now they got to work in unsafe conditions. That's why we got 12 dead men laying in the morgue right now, along with my father."

We should recall the fighting history of union mine workers, who had to struggle for every gain, including the right to organize in the first place.

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