Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Trapped Miners in West Virginia Still Not Found

UPDATE: The body of one of the miners has been recovered. He is dead, and hopes are fading for the other 12.

The 13 miners trapped early Monday morning by an explosion inside the mine have not been heard from or seen more than 24 hours after rescue efforts began. An AP article in the Washington Post reports that the mine authorities are using more aggressive efforts to find them.

Rescue crews scrapped their conservative approach to free 13 trapped miners Tuesday after efforts to contact the men went unanswered and air samples showed continued high levels of contaminated air.

"We determined with the cooperation of state and federal agencies that we can move forward and at a quicker pace and do it safely," said Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer of mine owner International Coal Group Inc. of Ashland, Ky.

We believe we were overly conservative before."

Hatfield said tests found that carbon monoxide levels far exceed federal regulatory limits in the Sago Mine.

He made the comments after rescuers trying to reach the trapped miners successfully punched a hole into the mine early Tuesday. A camera was inserted into the 6 1/4 inch hole to look for signs of life.

Drilling crews pounded on steel pipe and listened for a response in the section of the mine where the trapped miners were believed to be located, Hatfield said.

"They repeated this process several times over a 10 minute period but the drill crew heard no response," Hatfield said.

Specifically, carbon monoxide levels in the mine are "three times higher than breathable levels."

Sensors monitoring air quality in the shaft at the Sago Mine have found carbon monoxide levels at 1,300 parts per million. Federal standards put the ceiling of acceptable levels of the poisonous gas at 400 parts per million for about 15 minutes.

The explosion may have been caused by lightning igniting the highly inflammable methane gases inside the mine. That may have been the immediate cause. But what's also known at this point is that the Sago Mine had violated MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) standards for years.

A West Virginia coal mine where 13 miners are trapped was cited 208 times for alleged safety violations in 2005. It had just 68 citations in 2004.

Federal regulators' allegations against the Sago Mine included failure to dilute coal dust, which can lead to explosions, and failure to properly operate and maintain machinery. And according to the U-S Labor Department, 96 of the citations were considered "significant and substantial" by inspectors.

Scott Shields over at MyDD writes that Pres. Bush's policy decisions served to keep the mine industry executives' pockets well-lined, at the expense of mine workers' health and safety. Shields links to an August 2004 New York Times article, in which Christopher Drew and Richard A. Oppel, Jr., write that Bush has favored mine owners over mine workers by appointing industry executives to policy-making positions at MSHA, which of course has led to the abandonment of important safety measures and the rewriting of safety and environmental regulations to cut mine owners' costs and maximize profits. And Bush continues to shortchange miners' safety by underfunding the MSHA budget.

A diarist over at Daily Kos has more:

I read that this mine, in recent years, has been cited for 168 safety violations. Usually, when you get cited for a safety violation, there's a relatively hefty fine. You know, kind of alike a traffic fine, something that is supposed to deter future incidents like that which caused the fine in the first place.

So I looked up the Sago Mine in West Virginia on MSHA's website myself. Being once a union organizer who had a lot of background in spotting safety violations I wanted to find out for myself why a mine with 168 could not have possibly been shut down already or been fined to high heaven with prohibitive fees.

And what I found should not have been as disappointing to me as it was. You see, since 1994 OSHA changed dramatically in how it has undergone its enforcement authority.

Today, an OSHA inspector needs to provide PRIOR WARNING to an employer at least 24 hours before an inspection. Why? Because of GOPers such as Cass Ballenger. He headed the Employment and Workforce Committee and played a major role in deforming it in the 90s.

Where OSHA was once effective at pursuing law breakers and fining them, OSHA has now been defanged as enforcement money was earmaked for "non-enforcement" programs that would do relative harm to all those poor small businessmen Ballenger would always champion.

And who are they? Any employer with less than 250 employees at a given plant. That, to Ballenger, is a small business.

So I looked at the Mine's violations, and I found a lot of them. A heck of a lot. Most for about $60 (less than a speeding ticket), some for as much as $200 at some times and wow, there was even one for $440! Now that's tough enforcement!

In reality, the slow creep away from enforcement, led by people like Cass Ballenger and Petetr Hoekstra and their GOP allies is what really caused this. Just think, what is more profitable?

Paying a total of $3,600 for 168 fines or paying a couple hundred thousand to fix those problems?

Sad as it is, it's more profitable to pay those cheap fines, especially when you know the inspectors are going to come ahead of time anyways.

Pious hypocrites like Michelle Malkin urge us to "keep [the miners and their families] in your prayers," and heap scorn on what Malkin calls the "shameless Blame Bush nuts."

Well, who should be held responsible when 13 miners are sealed into a mine by an explosion that may very well have occurred because the mine owner was cited for hundreds of safety violations and because the president of the United States put mine industry executives in charge of creating regulatory policy for their own industry? It's a clear conflict of interest!

There's nothing wrong with prayer, but Michelle Malkin and others of her extreme right-wing mentality are also worshippers of capitalism, and capitalism does not operate on prayers. It operates on cold hard cash; and if Malkin ignores the reality of policies that enable mine owners to enrich themselves by cutting safety expenses, and then advises us all to pray for the mining families whose lives have been devastated by the industry's greed, then she is the shameless one.

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