Written With the Blood of Miners

New mine safety legislation has now been passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress and with the president’s signature will become law. While a new law represents a positive step for miners, there’s a real risk that it will prove a distraction from the change that’s needed most urgently — ongoing enforcement and oversight.

The legislation comes in response to a horrific year for mine safety. All of America watched the anguishing television coverage of January’s Sago disaster, in which 12 miners died. With less attention but equal devastation, 21 more miners have since perished in other U.S. mining accidents.

In this post-disaster context, it will be difficult for any student of mining history to view congressional action with anything but a cynical eye. Historically, the U.S. government has proven itself moderately adept at passing laws in the scrutinized aftermath of tragedy. The open question is whether, without disaster as an immediate catalyst, executive regulators and congressional overseers will do the unheralded, day-to-day work of keeping mines safe.

There are strong reasons for doubt. We have, after all, been here before. The last major mining safety law, the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, came after the 1976 Letcher County coal mine disaster in Kentucky (26 dead miners). The last law before that was the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which followed the 1968 Farmington disaster in West Virginia (78 dead miners). Even the creation of the first federal mine safety bureau came in reaction to disaster, the 1907 Monongah incident (362 dead miners).

Federal regulators and mine officials like to point to the broad trend toward improved safety. Last year, for example, saw the lowest number of mine fatalities, 22, in U.S. history. In 1950, by comparison, 643 U.S. miners died. And there are certainly other countries where things are worse. The calamity-ridden Chinese mining industry is on its way to yet another year in which more than 5,000 miners will die.

But surely the bar in the United States should be set higher than either 1950s America or present-day China. Mine safety, after all, is not the Manhattan Project.

Part of the tragedy of this year’s deaths is that so many of them were preventable — perhaps even easily preventable. At Sago, twelve miners survived an initial explosion and were able to seek a safe haven in the depths of the mine. As they were trained to do, the miners strapped on emergency breathing devices and deployed a sort of plastic sheet in an effort to barricade themselves from the poisonous gas. The barrier failed to keep out the carbon monoxide. As for the breathing devices, four of twelve failed to work properly. The ones that worked delivered only an hour’s worth of oxygen. It took rescuers 42 hours to reach the miners. Eleven of the 12 barricaded men died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Contrast Sago with an accident that took place two weeks later in a Canadian potash mine. Seventy-two miners trapped by fire retreated to a “safe room,” a sealed chamber with a cache of oxygen, water and food. ÊRescuers reached them 26 hours later, and every man emerged unscathed.

While new laws get headlines, it’s boring old enforcement and oversight that are most critical to miner safety. On this count, there are reasons to question both the commitment and the vigilance of the current administration.

Political appointees in both the Department of Labor and its Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have demonstrated an almost gleeful anti-regulation ideology — including a bias against safety regulations.

To give just a few examples: when the Bush Administration took office in 2001, it killed a draft regulation that would have increased the emergency oxygen available to miners. In the face of an advisory committee on lung disease that recommended lower amounts of respirable coal dust (which would also decrease the risk of explosions), an MSHA official proposed increasing acceptable dust levels by 400 percent. As for the critical task of enforcement, there are 200 fewer federal inspectors today than five years ago, even as scores of new mines open and existing mines add shifts.

In the days after January’s Sago disaster, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao promised to “take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again.” Yet two weeks ago, an accident at the Kentucky Darby Mine with striking parallels to Sago resulted in the death of five miners. Like the Sago victims, three Darby miners survived an explosion and were able to deploy their breathing units — the same model used at Sago. All three of the men died of carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers could reach them.

Little wonder that there’s a common saying among the more than 100,000 Americans who make their living underground: “Safety laws are written with the blood of miners.” Miners accept that their chosen profession will always carry considerable risk, but they have a right to expect that all reasonable steps are being taken to protect their safety.

True dedication to oversight and enforcement could break history’s grim pattern. Absent such vigilance, one thing is as certain as history: Not only have we been here before — we’ll be here again too.

Michael Punke, a former White House aide and the author of "Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West" (2007), is a writer for the History News Service.

June, 2006