Your Tax Dollars At Work

It is a shame that it took 29 deaths to make this happen.

This is the kind of thing our regulatory agencies should be doing all the frakking time.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly 60 problem U.S. coal mines have been hit with surprise inspections aimed at preventing another explosion like the one that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, the nation’s chief mine safety regulator said Wednesday.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration did not immediately reveal how many problems were found during the weekend crackdown. A spokeswoman said that information is still being compiled.

The raids targeted 57 mines, including 23 in West Virginia and 14 in Kentucky and involved 275 federal inspectors, MSHA said. Eight of the mines belong to Massey Energy Co., a $4.17 billion company that ranks among the largest coal producers in the United States.

Investigators suspect methane gas and excessive coal dust caused the massive April 5 blast at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine.

“The purpose of these inspections is to provide assurance that no imminent dangers, explosions, hazards or other serious health or safety conditions and practices are present at these mines,” MSHA director Joe Main said.

Rick Abraham, whose mine was on the inspection list, defended his operation and blamed politics for forcing an unnecessary crackdown.

“The problem in the industry today is the professionals are being brow beaten by politicians. The know they would be better off in a more workable atmosphere without the press of politicians and headline seekers,” Abraham said. “The employees are on edge, everybody’s on edge and it’s from people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

MSHA said it targeted mines with a history of serious violations and focused on rules covering methane, ventilation and efforts to control coal dust.

A National Mining Association spokesman declined to comment. Massey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Who is Holding the Bag?

According to the Mine Act, the only person who is to be held responsible for the failure of safety provisions that should have protected the 29 men who died in West Virginia when their mine exploded this week are the supervisors. The rank and file foremen who keep the mine “running coal.” The guy in charge of safety at the mine might be held liable, but that’s as far up the chain of command as it gets.

Don Blankenship, the CEO, who a few years back made it clear to his staff in a memo that the business of Massey was “running coal,” not building safety systems, is not responsible. He earns millions a year and his company has enough extra money to spend $14 million a year on lobbyists and in one election a couple of years ago spent $3 million to buy a judge in a West Virginia election. Blankenship’s minions who also make bongo bucks and have direct authority over implementation of policies and procedures are not responsible under the law.

The members of the board of directors who are paid at least $200,000 a year to attend meetings and rubber stamp the policies of Mr. Blankenship (who is also on the Board), are not responsible. These people include:

  • James B. Crawford, former chairman and CEO, James River Coal Company
  • General Robert H. Fogelsong, retired four-star general, U.S. Air Force
  • Richard M. Gabrys, former vice chairman, Deloitte & Touche
  • Admiral Bobby Inman, former director, National Security Agency
  • Barbara Lady Judge, chair, United Kingdon Atomic Energy Authority
  • Dan R. Moore, chairman, Moore Group, Inc.
  • Baxter F. Phillips Jr., president, Massey Energy
  • Stanley C. Suboleski, former commissioner, Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration
  • I should also add here that up to a year ago, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee was a board member. Gee, who earns cose to $1 million a year from OSU, was forced to resign after the people of Ohio wondered what he was doing taking money from a company that was removing all the mountaintops in West Virginia.

    It is a testament to the political power of coal that two legislative enactments intended to improve the safety of work in the coal fields specifically hold low level employees liable for actions that are largely prescribed by policies from the top. In no case do the laws point at the company or the board of directors, which is charged with setting policy and should be responsible for the general operation of the business.

    I don’t think this is going to get any better.

    Regulators! Mount up!

    When something happens like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, I as someone who has both done some reporting in the area and as someone who keeps an eye on government in an amateur capacity can’t help but start trying to weed out where the regulation and enforcement went right or wrong.

    I come at this as someone who thinks the government should have an awesome regulatory and enforcement power over corporations. And, when it comes to this, the worst mine disaster in this country since 1984, I think that position is rather justified by it.

    Regarding Upper Big Branch: I would use the term “accident” rather loosely.

    The mine in Raleigh County, near Beckley, W.Va., was cited for 458 safety violations last year, with 50 of them listed as unwarrantable failures to comply—citations reserved under federal mining regulations for instances of willful or gross negligence.

    Nationwide, an average of 2 percent of safety violations are unwarrantable failures. Slightly more than 10 percent of Upper Big Branch mine’s violations last year were unwarrantable failures.

    At the time of Monday’s explosion, Upper Big Branch mine was facing more than $150,000 in fines for pending safety violations, after routine scheduled inspections resulted in more than 100 citations three times in a 12-month period.

    “Unwarrantable failure” violations are serious. A mine can be fined a maximum of $220,000 for a single violation. This mine has been cited for coal dust—a doubly fatal issue in that it causes black lung and in that it can cause explosions—and for poor inspection regimen, and for ventilation issues and a poor escape plan. Methane gas buildup has been a chronic issue for the mine:

    Internal MSHA records made available to the Post-Gazette Monday night also indicated that in 2006, Upper Big Branch released more than 1 million cubic feet of of flammable methane gas in a 24-hour period. Under federal safety regulations, that amount of methane discharge would have required a federal safety inspection for methane levels once every five days.

    This mine had 57 violations last month, and Performance Coal Company—a subsidiary of Massey Energy—was fighting many of the steepest fines or refusing to pay them.

    There has been an outcry in industry regarding OSHA’s “new sheriff in town” stance of late. But there is a truth to be eked out from this disaster and, indeed, in any time there are fatalities in industry. Federal regulations and enforcement powers don’t exist just to make some guy with a clipboard feel like he’s got a big wiener. Companies that flout federal regulations end up killing and maiming people. Pure profit motive provides no incentive to install a safety rail, or to properly ventilate, or to require guards and safety belts and lock-outs, so government has to create such an incentive. Something like Upper Big Branch, something like Sago, something like any of these should be an icy splash of water to every American’s face: Federal regulations and enforcement powers exist for a reason.

    I say this gives agencies such as OSHA and MSHA license to step it up even another notch or four. Regulators! Mount up! (Sure, we’ll steal from Warren G. We’ll steal from anyone…)

    Some of That 'Change' You've Been Hearing About

    A key post to watch as a barometer of how serious the U.S. government is about the well-being of its people is Assistant Labor Secretary for Mine Safety and Health.

    Mining is the most dangerous job in the world. There are dozens of ways to be injured or killed if you work in a mine. Things can fall on you. Conveyors can tear you apart or lynch you. Vehicles tip. You could suffocate. Things can fall and block your way out. You could fall. Things might explode. And, there’s always the eventuality that your lungs will turn black. So far this year in the Untied States of America, there have been 12 fatalities in coal mines. Last year, there were 30. Since 1996, 443 people have died in coal mine accidents. (And I haven’t even bothered to look up the numbers for metal/nonmetal mines. These are just coal mines.)

    Mamas. Do not let your babies grow up to be miners. Seriously.

    Imagine what that number would be if the federal government wasn’t charged to inspect and regulate and fine. Oh, wait. You don’t have to imagine. Just have a look at China’s numbers:

    China currently accounts for the largest number of coal-mining fatalities, accounting for about 80% of the world’s total, although it produces only 35% of the world’s coal. Between January 2001 to October 2004, there were 188 accidents that had a death toll of more than 10, about one death every 7.4 days.

    So you see, Assistant Labor Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is kind of an important job.

    Under the previous president, MSHA was headed by a man who was most certainly teased mercilessly as a child: Dick Stickler, formerly head of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety and a stuffed shirt at BethEnergy. Stickler’s nomination faced widespread opposition from the United Mine Workers of America and in the Senate. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said Stickler had overseen “some of the most dangerous, most frequently cited for safety violations in the entire industry. In fact, his mines had a rate of preventable accidents that were 3 times the national average.” Two confirmation votes failed, and Gorge Dubya Boosh eventually offered Dick Stickler a recess appointment. Bear in mind that at the time the Senate was controlled by the GOOP. But mine safety was kind of a hot-button issue at the time due to that Sago incident and all.

    Stickler came under criticism by his bosses for his handling of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in 2007 for “…his ‘obsession’ for keeping a continuous log of the progress made or lost by tunneling rescuers,” which was said to demand that the crews had to halt the rescue digging to report to him. Apparently, Dick Stickler is a bit of a stickler. Also, a report from the Inspector General of the Labor Department said that MHSA was negligent in protecting workers at the mine.

    Before Dick Stickler of course was David Lauriski—who was confirmed by the Senate—who famously ran whistle-blower Jack Spadaro out of town on a rail and who wanted to gut regs regarding coal dust. Interesting how Boosh installed a corporate pig at MSHA and then all these epic mine disasters started happening. Weird.

    President Obama apparently has a different idea: Let’s allow a qualified person to run MSHA.

    Here’s a bit from the bio offered when Joe Main—confirmed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday—was nominated:

    …began working in coal mines in 1967 and quickly became an advocate for miners safety as a union safety committeeman as well as serving in various local union positions in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He was employed by the UMWA in 1974 as a Special Assistant to the International President, and joined the UMWA Safety Division in 1976, serving as Safety Inspector, Administrative Assistant, and Deputy Director. In 1982 he was appointed Administrator of the UMWA Occupational Health and Safety Department, a position he held for 22 years, managing the international health and safety program and staff.

    Wait…a union guy?

    One who has…testified before a congressional subcommittee regarding mine safety?

    Check out these juicy quotes from when Main’s nomination was announced in July. Notice who’s happy and who’s sad.

    “I don’t think Obama could have chosen anyone better for the job,” said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer and mine-safety advocate. “Joe has done more for mine safety in the U.S. than anyone in the past 25 to 30 years.”

    Oppegard said Main’s nomination “signals a change of direction in terms of mine safety in this country. It’s a 180 degree shift from the policies of the Bush administration and its favoring of coal industry executives.”

    “It’s going to be frustrating having somebody with an agenda that is pro-union,” said Bill Caylor, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re not looking forward to it.”

    Caylor is right. Because the unions friggin’ love this guy.

    Joe is perhaps the most knowledgeable person about mine safety and health in the nation, and his experience was gained where it counts the most—fighting every day for over 30 years on behalf of miners’ health and safety, including 22 years as the Administrator of Occupational Health and Safety for the UMWA.

    I mean, heaven forefend that the head of the MINE SAFETY and HEALTH Administration should actually give a crap about SAFETY and HEALTH in the MINES. Geez. I thought a regulatory agency was just supposed to look the other way, or even to facilitate a businessman’s shoddy, money-saving shortcuts in his pursuit of the bottom line. So what if a few Joes Six-Pack lose a few fingers. Right? <./sarcasm>

    Now this thing might not be exactly perfect. Main skated to confirmation, sans hearings—as did Lauriski. And, as probably the second-best journalist on the subject in the country points out, there are a few questions that could be put to the guy. Still. How the government fills this job tells you a hell of a lot about how seriously said government actually takes the task of “keeping us safe.”

    I’d say we’re in pretty good hands.