The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Trapped Minersâ€TM Employer, Feds Left Worksite Unsafe

by Brendan Coyne

Though the Sago mine was fined for hundreds of violations, even under safety rules relaxed by the Bush administration, regulators issued only small fines and allowed the facility to operate until tragedy struck.

Jan. 3, 2006 – As workers struggle to reach thirteen mine workers trapped by a West Virginia mine explosion yesterday morning, their employer’s poor safety record and the government’s failure to protect them are coming to light.

As of press time, no contact had been made with the men. The cause of the explosion, which occurred around 6:30 a.m. yesterday, is unknown, though noxious gas reportedly blocked initial rescue efforts.

Companies are mandated by law to place ventilators and other breathing accessories at intervals throughout their mines, though the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently cited the company running Sago for not providing enough of the proper equipment to workers.

Safety problems escalated at the Sago mine in 2005. At least sixteen workers – two of them contract employees – were injured at the site last year, double the number reported for the mine in 2004, according to the most recent MSHA data available.

In addition, MSHA records show a marked increase in citations against Sago over the past year. Many of the infractions were related to air-quality and ventilation regulations. The mine was cited for fourteen separate violations in December alone – including fire-safety and blocked-pathway infractions.

Overall, MSHA issued 208 citations to Sago mine in 2005, according to MSHA records reviewed by The NewStandard. The state Office of Miners' Health Safety & Training issued 144 of its own the same year, the Office's administrator, Terry Farley, told the Associated Press. The numbers show a marked increase in infractions over the previous year, when MSHA cited the mine just 68 times and the state agency reported 70 violations.

Despite the increase in workplace safety violations, the new owner, International Coal Group, maintains it has improved operations at Sago since taking over in early 2005, the AP reports today.

International Coal Group acquired Sago after swallowing the mine’s former parent company, Anker Group. ICG solely operates domestic mine complexes, with eleven throughout Northern and Central Appalachia and one in Illinois. It employs more than 1,400 people.

With over $465 million in operating revenue in the third quarter of 2005, ICG has shown marked profitability and growth since its 2002 founding. The company reported a net income of $8.6 million in the third quarter alone, a significant improvement over its $37.2 million loss reported just a year before.

By contrast, fines for the 205 MSHA-issued citations last year barely top $24,000, though the agency has yet to announce fine amounts for a handful of the more recent violations.

Labor and workplace-safety groups have been warning for years that fines and other punishments are too lenient to affect changes in most companies’ practices.

The company has paid just $14,471 of the over $24,000 in MSHA fines to date.

Meanwhile, federal government’s appetite for mine safety enforcement has been dwindling. According to an AFL-CIO analysis, the Bush administration cut 170 positions from MSHA and has not proposed a single new mine-safety standard or rule during its tenure.

Additionally, many regulations aimed specifically at mine safety have been eroded or done away with under the Bush administration, including a 2000 rule titled "Escapeways and Refuges." The rule required all mines to have at least two separate exit paths but was altered shortly after Bush took office by then MSHA head David Lauriski.

Lauriski, a former mining-company official who took over MSHA in 2001 and resigned at the end of Bush's first term, pulled the rule "in light of resource constraints and changing safety and health regulatory priorities," according to official data compiled by the government watchdog OMB Watch. The regulation is one of seventeen aimed at making mining less dangerous undone by MSHA since 2001.

The trapped Sago mine workers are believed to be stuck thousands of feet into a slanting shaft that leads hundreds of feet below surface level. Two teams of spelunking rescuers and drilling that began last night failed to reach them. The Upshur County, West Virginia Office of Emergency Management was unable to make any predictions about when the efforts would bear fruit, telling Reuters: "It could be hours, or it could be days."

Six other workers escaped from the Sago mine after the blast. The workers had been reopening the site after the holiday weekend.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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