Wednesday, October 10
Mining is an inherently dangerous occupation, with a long and brutal history. Most people in the U.S. rarely think about mining, until the one or two catastrophes a year in our country in which an explosion or cave-in traps coal miners underground.

At these times, cable television news goes 24/7 with coverage of the dramatic race against time to save the trapped men. The most recent mining disaster in the United States was in August at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. After a mine cave-in trapped six miners, three more men were killed in a heroic effort to dig a rescue tunnel.

In recent congressional hearings, the lack of adequate oversight before the accident, and an adequate response after the accident, by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration took center stage. As Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America noted, the Crandall Canyon disaster began on June 3, not Aug. 6, "because June 3 is the date when the mine operator submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration a plan to engage in retreat mining at Crandall Canyon."

Mr. Roberts questioned why the retreat mining plan was submitted and approved even when the previous operator had declined to do that kind of mining because of safety concerns.


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Beyond ignoring signs that the mine was unsafe, MSHA faced criticism from family and friends of the dead miners that it failed to keep families informed and that it allowed flaky mine co-owner Robert Murray to run the rescue effort and act as the main source of information to the families and the public.

Standing passively on the sidelines during the Crandall Canyon rescue effort was MSHA head Richard Stickler, a former mining company executive with a controversial record. In 2006 the Senate rejected Mr. Stickler's nomination because of his record and industry ties, but President Bush appointed him anyway while Congress was in fall recess. More deadly to miners than such well-publicized accidents, but not well-known, is the fact that pneumoconiosis, better known as "black lung disease," has doubled nationwide in the past five years — another testament to shamefully inadequate oversight during the Bush administration.

Fortunately, even before Crandall Canyon, members of Congress had introduced two bills in June, HR.2768 and HR.2769, that would improve day-to-day mine safety. The bills seek to improve atmospheric monitoring in mines and reestablish acceptable levels and proper enforcement of coal dust and asbestos that miners can be exposed to, make provision for refuge chambers near where miners work, establish communications systems for trapped miners with the world above and supplement the authority of federal inspectors.

The bills are still at the earliest stage of consideration. U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-California, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, which conducted recent hearings into the Crandall Canyon disaster, said he would soon take action to move them through committee.

But enlightened new legislation — even if it passes — will not mean as much as it should without a federal government that believes it is duty-bound to enforce the law. Roberts, of the UMWA, summed up the problem at a Senate hearing on the latest mine tragedy.

"MSHA is charged with protecting miners, period," Mr. Roberts said. "There is nothing in any federal mine safety legislation that says MSHA should be helping companies operate more efficiently or at a lower cost. But that's exactly what the agency has been doing over the last several years. The result is more hearings like this one and more legislation written in the blood of coal miners."