Wednesday, January 4

Mining Accident or Inevitability?

Yesterday's Mining Tragedy, where 12 men were killed in a West Virginia Mine with only one survivor - has mostly played as a story the incredible premature mistake of announcing that 12 of them men had survived.

But I think the real story is the one discussed by Randi Rhodes today and the Washington Post, which points out that this accident may have been anything but...

THE MERE THOUGHT of being trapped at the bottom of a coal mine is horrible enough to send shivers down most people's backs. But after the explosion that trapped 13 men in a West Virginia coal mine early Monday, an equally chilling story of safety neglect may be emerging as well. According to Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, the Sago coal mine, where the accident occurred, had an accident rate in 2004 that was three times higher than the national average. That record has since worsened: Last year, the mine's operators received 205 orders and citations for health and safety violations, 96 of which carried a "significant and substantial" risk of death or injury. In 2005 the mine was forced to halt operations 16 times after failing to comply with safety rules. Eight of those citations, which were among the most serious a mine can receive, occurred in the final quarter of the year.

Mining has never been a pristine or perfectly safe business. But there are mines in this country that operate safely and that receive no health and safety citations at all. At the very least, the safety problems at Sago should have caused officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for mine inspections, to take notice. Did they? We may never know. At the moment, a spokesman for the MSHA says it is "hard to say" whether the mine's record was unusual. Ms. Smith says the MSHA, which used to publish the results of its accident investigations, no longer does so. The Bush administration's preference for concealing formerly public information has, it seems, penetrated the mine safety inspection world, too.

Another question worth asking in the wake of this event is whether the culture of the MSHA has changed in the past six years. Once purely an enforcement agency, set up to make sure that mines followed safety regulations, the MSHA has in the past several years formed a series of "partnerships" with mining industry groups. In principle, such partnerships might help make mines safer. In practice, they might have allowed the agency to become too friendly with the businesses it regulates. When Congress comes back to town, we'd like to hear some open discussion about the health of the nation's mine inspections.

The lack of oversight by government agencies charged with protecting the workers such as these miners, is far from an isolated incident. According to Randi's broadcast, key administration personel with MSHA have been recruited from former mining industry lobbyists and those within the agency who dared to speak out have been threatened with being fired..

It's Brownie from FEMA all over again.

This same "fox guarding the hen house" strategy has been seen before with a buddy-buddy relationship between Ken Lay, Ralph Reed and Karl Rove which gave the impression of "no holds barred" to corporations such as Enron and Tyco and allowed them to play Russian Roulette with their stock prices destroying the 401k's and pension plans of their employees. But another more on salient example has been discussed by Molly Ivins in her book "Bushwacked" as well an article in Mother Jones titled Uncompassionate Conservative.

That Bush's administration is salted with the sons of somebody-or-other should come as no surprise. I doubt it has ever even occurred to Bush that there is anything wrong with a class-driven good-ol'-boy system. That would explain why he surrounds himself with people like Eugene Scalia (son of Justice Antonin Scalia), whom he named solicitor of the Department of Labor -- apparently as a cruel joke. Before taking that job, the younger Scalia was a handsomely paid lobbyist working against ergonomic regulations designed to prevent repetitive stress injuries. His favorite technique was sarcastic invective against workers who supposedly faked injuries when the biggest hazard they faced was "dissatisfaction with co-workers and supervisors." More than 5 million Americans are injured on the job every year, and more die annually from work-related causes than were killed on September 11. Neither Scalia nor Bush has ever held a job requiring physical labor.

What is the disconnect? One can see it from the other side -- people's lives are being horribly affected by the Bush administration's policies, but they make no connection between what happens to them and the decisions made in Washington. I think I understand why so many people who are getting screwed do not know who is screwing them. What I don't get is the disconnect at the top. Is it that Bush doesn't want to see? No one brought it to his attention? He doesn't care?

Ivins has also written about the Bush Administrations impact on the FDA - the agency that seeks to protect the quality of our food and pharmacuticals noting how food inspectors were given new and far less strigent guidlines for shutting down a production line as a result of bacterial and fecal contamination of chicken and beef. And then there's the entire Vioxx situation...

In September, Merck & Co., the huge drug manufacturer, pulled Vioxx off the market. Vioxx was a popular pain-killing, anti-arthritis drug, but Merck said it was putting patients' safety first. A new study from the Federal Drug Administration showed high doses of Vioxx triple the risk of heart attack and sudden cardiac death.

From there, the story bifurcates – it takes two directions. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa revealed that the FDA had tried to silence the author of the study, Dr. David Graham, associate director of science in the Office of Drug Safety. Grassley said the FDA first sat on Graham's study and that then he was "ostracized" and "subjected to veiled threats and intimidation."

The Wall Street Journal followed the other fork, finding internal memos from Merck showing that company officials may have been aware of the dangers of Vioxx as long ago as 1996, including a memo apparently instructing its sales reps to "dodge" the question when doctors asked about the cardiac record of Vioxx.

In short, we have a toothless regulatory agency in the pocket of the industry it is supposed to patrol. We have an administration-wide contempt for science and plain facts. And the allegation against the folks at Merck is that they were making such enormous profits on a drug that killed people that when they knew or suspected it was killing people, they kept right on selling it. When the information that Merck had known for a long time about Vioxx and heart attacks became public, the company's stock fell by 9.6 percent.


Now, it may seem trendy to simply Blame Bush for just another act of nature that he had no ability to control like the Mine failure, but the fact is -- he does have the ability to impact these situations through his regulator agencies. He has a responsibility to be attentive to issues of safety, issues of how people lives can be damaged and destroyed by greedy, lazy and irresponsible corporations - yet time and time again, he doesn't act responsibly. People - Americans - Die, and he doesn't care. He's a contributory partner to this negligence, too busy genuflecting to the only diety he truly believes in...

The Lords of Profit.

Updated: Now I know that comment could be considered harsh and unwarranted "Bush-Bashing" -- but just look at this revelation from David Sirota

The tragic news about the death of 12 mine workers this week has brought up all sorts of questions about the Bush administration's record protecting mine workers. Back in 2002, I was working for the House Appropriations Committee. At the time, you may recall there was a big mining accident in Western Pennsylvania. President Bush held a big photo-op to pretend like he cared - but he never responded to the fact sheet that House Democrats put out questioning why he had made so many cuts to mine safety programs. You can view this fact sheet in Microsoft Word right here (I still have it from my time at the Appropriations Committee) It was released to the media and the administration on August 5, 2002 - the same day Bush did his big photo-op.

In case the administration claims it didn't remember being warned, check out this excerpt from the big Chicago Tribune story from 8/6/02:

"We call on the Bush administration to fully fund the Mine Safety and Health Administration to ensure that coal mines are inspected more thoroughly and that the mine act is enforced more stringently," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers Association, said in a statement.

"It would be cynical to portray himself as the hero of mine safety by simply doing photo ops," said David Sirota, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats also released a report from the Labor Department's inspector general--the agency's in-house watchdog--concluding that the Mine Safety and Health Administration was "unable to complete statutorily mandated inspections of ... mine operations," in part because of a lack of inspectors.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing last month, lawmakers were told that the Jim Walters Resources mine in Brookwood, Ala., where 13 miners died last September, had 31 outstanding safety violations that went unchecked because of a lack of government inspectors.

The mine workers union also has criticized Bush's choice of Stanley Suboleski, an executive at coal operator Massey Energy, to serve on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. That agency judges disputes over alleged safety violations.

Now, after another bad accident, we find out that since the last accident in 2002, not only did the President ignore calls by Democrats to address the situation seriously, but he actually enacted more cuts to mine safety programs and weakened mine safety regulations.

The 2002 fact sheet and the Chicago Tribune article shows that Bush knew full well that mine safety was suffering - and now we know he didn't do anything about it, to tragic consequences. They can put out GOP hacks and administration spokespeople to deny this reality - but the facts are there.

Fact Sheet Contents:
INSPECTOR GENERAL IDENTIFIES MAJOR PROBLEMS – Report Urges More Resources: The Department of Labor Office of Inspector General indicated in its Semiannual Report to the Congress, October 1, 2001 – March 31, 2002 that “MSHA is unable to complete statutorily mandated inspections of Metal/Nonmetal mine operations because of the rapid growth in mine operations, reductions in the numbers of inspectors, and shifts toward compliance assistance.” Ironically, the Administration has not requested additional inspectors for Metal/Nonmetal Mines.

BUSH FIRST BUDGET CUTS – Ignoring IG Report, Bush Slashes Enforcement: President Bush proposed an overall cut to MSHA staffing levels for the FY 2002 budget. That proposal included a shift of some enforcement resources from Coal Mine to Metal/Non-Metal safety and health activities. The Congress restored the proposed cuts. However, as was the case with OSHA, the Department of Labor neglected to fill many vacant positions throughout 2001, thus reducing the overall enforcement activities.

BUSH SECOND BUDGET CUTS – Continuing to Slash: The President’s FY 2003 Budget proposed an overall 6 percent cut of MSHA resources and a shift of enforcement resources from Coal to Metal/Non-Metal Mine safety and health activities.

BUSH ENFORCEMENT RECORD – Ignoring Repeated Violations: At the “Jim Walters Resources mine in Brookwood, Ala., 55 miles southwest of Birmingham, 13 miners died last September in an explosion. At the time, the mine had 31 outstanding violations, and government inspectors had not returned to determine whether they had been corrected.” [New York Times, 7/26/2002]

BUSH ADMINISTRATION JUSTIFICATION – Resorts to Citing Statistics From 100 Years Ago: To justify its massive budget cuts, the Bush Administration resorted to comparing the mine fatality rate with rates all the way back to 1900 – when the common cold could kill someone. “The Bush administration's chief official on mine safety, David D. Lauriski, defended the administration's enforcement record and noted that the number of coal deaths was far lower than in decades past. The 42 deaths in 2001 were far below the 153 in 1981 and 294 in 1961. In fact, in every year from 1900 to 1945, the number of coal mining deaths exceeded 1,000, and in many years there were more than 2,000.” [New York Times, 7/26/2002]
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that my gut instincts on this just might have been correct.

Vyan

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