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Miners deserve better

January 05, 2006

DRIVING SOLO IN A CALIFORNIA carpool lane carries a heftier fine than allowing combustible materials to accumulate in a coal mine.

That might help explain why the Sago mine in West Virginia, where an explosion this week killed 12 people, paid just a bit over $24,000 in fines on most of the 208 federal health and safety violations it racked up last year -- triple the violations of the year before. This, even though many of the infractions were serious and repeat offenses, and there were at least a dozen roof collapses inside the mine last year. (Fines haven't yet been assessed for some of the more recent violations, and many occurred under a previous owner.)

There's a bigger problem here than one rogue mine. Federal regulations make it financially worthwhile to keep on breaking the rules, even when doing so endangers lives.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that it would investigate the explosion. That's fine, but an outside agency should investigate the MSHA because part of the problem appears to be the regulators and the rules under which they operate. A mine with Sago's litany of violations should have had its operations suspended (something that former staffers say has become more difficult under the Bush administration) or had a federal labor overseer on site, at the company's expense, to make sure it operated properly. A fine of $60 to $247 for buildup of combustible materials -- Sago had 21 such citations in 2005 -- isn't a deterrent.

The administration responded to the Sago tragedy by saying that even before the accident, it had proposed quadrupling the fines for safety violations at mines. But it hasn't taken the steps to make that a reality.

The administration's proposal is a good first step, but it doesn't go far enough. Penalties should increase exponentially if repeat offenses occur within a year.

The safety of coal mining has improved markedly over the decades, but as long as people go into holes in the earth, mining will be a dangerous endeavor. The Sago mine explosion may prove to have been unavoidable. But Sago's poor safety record wasn't.

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