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Saturday, April 10, 2010

THE DEADLIEST JOB THAT NOBODY LOVES

Like everybody else in the country this week, I’ve been following the West Virginia mine tragedy, hoping against hope that the miners – some of them, any of them – would be found alive. That hope was finally dashed this evening when the bodies of the 4 missing miners were found about an hour ago. The death toll is 29 people, who should not have died, if the mine’s owner had taken even the most rudimentary of safety precautions.

"We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for," Gov. Joe Manchin said. "So this journey has ended and now the healing will start." What a chuckle-headed remark for a supposedly smart man to make. There won’t be any healing from this tragedy. Yes, there will be funerals, and there will be markers, and Massey Energy will collect another big bunch of violations, and won’t pay just an awful lot in fines – and some cosmetic improvements will be made, and people will go back to work in those mines. There will be no healing, just scarring. This kind of completely preventable disaster doesn’t allow for that sort of healing. The families will be financially taken care of, but the anger that is only now beginning to surface does not heal.

Until late Friday, officials had held out a slim chance that four missing miners might have made it to an underground refuge chamber which held enough oxygen and water to survive for four days. “None of the chambers had been deployed and none of our miners suffered," Governor Manchin said. The death toll makes it the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky. Earlier, federal mine safety administrator Kevin Stricklin had said there was no way anyone in the mine could have survived after the blast unless they were in a refuge shelter. "There's no way that life could be sustained in that type of atmosphere, even for a short period of time," Mr. Stricklin said. Rescuers had hoped the miners might have made it to the chamber stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for several days.

That means, of course, that the atmosphere was so toxic that one deep breath and the person would die. Period. If, that is, he hadn’t already been pulped in a blast that was so severe that the heavy-gauge steel railroad tracks were bent and twisted like pretzels.

The mine's owner, Massey Energy Co., has been repeatedly cited both for problems with the system that vents methane as well as allowing combustible dust to build up to dangerous levels. On the day of the blast, MSHA cited the mine with two fairly serious safety violations, one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, and the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable. However, Mr. Stricklin said these particular violations had nothing to do with the blast.

Yeah. Right. The Federally-mandated ventilation system was inadequate, and didn’t work about half the time, according to some miners that talked to reporters anonymously, the dust extractors weren’t working even as well as the ventilation system – and the violations had nothing to do with the blast.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety. He has said in the past of the Federal regulations: “They're very difficult to comply with. There's so many of the laws that are, if you will, nonsensical from an engineering or a coal mining viewpoint. A lot of the politicians, they get emotional, as does the public, about the most recent accident, and it's easy to get laws on the books that are not truly helping the health or safety of coal miners. I think we need to be very pragmatic and very careful when we're passing laws of that nature to make sure that we create as much safety and as much health as can be created for each of the resources we expend”.

Or, in other words, if the laws and regulations are inconvenient for you, just ignore them.

Of course, saying that the rules are "difficult to comply with" actually means: "On the other hand, we're perfectly OK racking up tons of violations, and we don’t give a damn about the safety, health and well-being of our workers if it looks like it’s going to cost us money." After all, who’s going to force him and his company to do anything? The West Virginia miners? The UMW? The AFL-CIO? Governor Manchin? How about – NOBODY?

The most recent statistics gathered by the US Government shows West Virginia to have 48,899 employers offering 713,805 jobs. The average weekly wage for these West Virginia jobs is $623 per week ($32,396 annually). Overall, the private sector has more jobs in West Virginia than any other with 575,016 jobs and 44,951 employers. The average weekly wage for the Private sector is $626 per week ($32,552 annually). The next highest sector is local government jobs with 73,992 positions and 1,895 employers. The average weekly wage for local government jobs is $395 per week ($20,540 annually). Rounding out the jobs in West Virginia is the State Government sector which has 934 firms and agencies that employ 42,288 people in West Virginia. The average weekly wage for state government jobs is $687 per week ($35,724 annually). So, take a good look at these statistics about the specific industries that offer jobs in West Virginia. Trade, transportation, and utilities jobs in the service sector make up the majority of West Virginia jobs. Trade, transportation, and utilities jobs account for 11,796 employers in West Virginia which hire 139,971 people. Their average weekly salary is $562 per week ($29,224 annually). Education and health services jobs are created by 5,004 employers in West Virginia which employ 108,585 people. The average weekly salary for an employee who works in the education and health services industry is $663 per week ($34,476 annually).

So, while coal mining is still pretty important, there are other employers that are bigger in terms of people employed, but nothing and nobody in these other industries has anything like the political clout, the stature and the power that the coal companies had then and still have today. I did some research on the industry and its influence, and what I found both frightened and enraged me. It frightened me because there it is, out in public for the world to see: The inescapable fact that a huge company literally doesn't give a damn about its employees or for their safety. It enraged me for the same reason. In southern West Virginia, coal has been king for more than a century. The politicians in these hardscrabble mining towns tread a very fine line, trying to balance support for an industry worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, while also trying to protect workers from its lapses and excesses.

Coal occupies a dominant position in the politics and culture of West Virginia, even as mechanization and less labor-intensive types of mining have reduced the number of workers to roughly a tenth of what there were in the 1950s. Back then, company towns were common and the United Mine Workers of America's annual Labor Day picnic at Racine was a must-attend event for any politician that had any hope of being elected. A statue of a coal miner adorns the grounds of the state Capitol, and last year the Legislature voted unanimously to name bituminous coal the official rock of West Virginia, saying the "industry remains essential to economic growth and progress in West Virginia and the United States." Incurring the wrath of the industry is a risk few politicians are either willing or eager to take. Support for a severance tax on coal, for example, helped doom the career of Democrat Bill Marland, governor in the early 1950s who was ruined and who ended up driving a cab in Chicago.

In 1972, the state's current junior senator, Jay Rockefeller, made ending strip mining part of his campaign for governor. He lost and famously switched his position. He has supported surface mining ever since, which, while it might have been politically expedient, still is an act of cowardice in my opinion. I can understand that he didn’t want to wind up like Bill Marland, but I can’t condone his behaviour. "There is extreme pressure from the industry," said Ken Hechler, a former West Virginia congressman who was the lead sponsor of federal legislation that created what is now the Mine Safety and Health Administration after a 1968 explosion in the town of Farmington that killed 78 miners, including the uncle of current Gov. Joe Manchin.

Mr. Hechler said the knot tying coal and politics can only be cut by extraordinary events, including disasters like Farmington and the Upper Big Branch blast. He said the explosion this week will likely mean a new toughness from public officials toward the industry.

What are the responsibilities of lawmakers and government regulators who devise and enforce rules to protect those who, as an old union song put it, dig the coal so the world can run? We Americans sat through almost exactly this same scenario after the Sago Mine catastrophe that took 12 lives in January 2006. Later that year, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (http://www.msha.gov/MinerAct/MinerActSingleSource.asp). The MINER Act is "the most significant mine safety legislation in 30 years," according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Web site. The law strengthened the agency's staff, increased penalties for violations and, as The Post reported, "led to a higher number of citations and penalties - and more challenges by companies."

It’s only after horrific and horrendous disasters such as this one that anybody remembers – or even cares - that regulations exist for a reason, and that enforcing them, even if it’s inconvenient for the mining companies can, literally, be a matter of life and death. I’m sure that, eventually, we’ll find out exactly what went wrong at Upper Big Branch and whether the safety violations were part of the problem.

And what will we do then? That’s the question that keeps me up at night.

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