Will the Media Forget Tragedy in the Mines?

The sad but safe assumption about the Sago miners is that when their funerals are over, we will forget about

The sad but safe assumption about the Sago miners is that when their funerals are over, we will forget about them, their mourning families, and the working conditions that still threaten so many like them. We will forget and, with occasional exceptions in the pages of liberal magazines and daily newspapers, we won’t be reminded until the next mesmerizing catastrophe shows up on the cable channels. Then the tears will flow again for a few days, and we will all marvel at the courage that sends the miners back underground—and wonder why we do so little to protect them.

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The answers were painfully obvious back when we watched the last episode of this traditional drama in the summer of 2002. Yet the happy conclusion of the Quecreek accident also ended the brief media preoccupation with the lives and deaths of miners, and almost nobody continued to ask the pertinent questions.

Now a dozen men are dead and another remains seriously injured. Nobody knows yet whether their tragic demise could have been averted, but everyone should know that the Sago mine had incurred dozens of serious safety violations, that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has consistently failed to crack down on the operators of unsafe mines, and that the Sago miners lacked the protection of a strong, vigilant union, as did the Quecreek miners before them.

Unfortunately the hard truth is that under this government, the scant measures we undertake as a nation to protect miners and other workers in dangerous industries are growing smaller. The budgets of federal regulatory agencies are cut. The officials appointed to run those agencies tend to be former industry executives who display no enthusiasm for enforcing safety regulations. They prefer “voluntary compliance.”

Under this government, the legal right of workers to organize—so vital in dangerous extraction and manufacturing jobs—is more myth than reality. And in the absence of union pressure, impartial federal regulation is more important than ever.

But since the Quecreek incident, which should have served as a warning, the Bush administration has continued to indulge the mining companies by abandoning prior efforts to improve regulation, fining the operators less and less for safety violations, and often failing to collect even those nominal fines. Those are the findings of a recent Knight-Ridder newspapers investigation, which sharply contradicts the “happy news” pronouncements emanating from Washington.

Since 2001, the penalties imposed on mine operators have declined precipitously, and less than half of the fines imposed between 2001 and 2003 have been paid. Meanwhile, the number of coal-mine enforcement personnel at MSHA has been cut by almost 10 percent and the President’s budget calls for another cut of 6 percent. The number of mine fatalities has remained relatively low during the past few years, but if enforcement continues to decline, then the disaster at Sago may be only the beginning of an ominous trend.

The owner of the Sago mine is the International Coal Group (ICG), a new corporation founded by New York businessman Wilbur Ross Jr., to take over distressed and undervalued coal properties. It is now the fifth-largest coal company in the nation. Last year, after ICG bought Sago, the MSHA inspectors found more than 200 safety violations at the mine, including roof support, ventilation and escape-way problems. The agency collected only $24,000 in fines, or about $115 per violation.

During the last three months of 2005, including an inspection that took place less than two weeks before the explosion, federal inspectors found 46 safety violations at Sago, including 18 deemed “significant and substantial.” The proposed fines for those infractions came to $2,286. When a 62-year-old miner died at another mine owned by ICG last year due to the company’s failure to fix a safety violation, the resulting fine was only $400.

No wonder Mr. Ross believes he can make a killing in coal.

As the billionaire investor boasts, “Coal is the cheapest source of energy for generating electric power.” Among the reasons that coal remains so cheap, of course, is that the operators who work for Mr. Ross discourage unionization, don’t spend too much on health and safety or environmental protection, and enjoy immunity from the kind of federal enforcement that involves sticks as well as carrots.

In the aftermath of the Sago tragedy, Mr. Ross grimly promised to find out what had happened and to prevent such a terrible event from happening again. Whatever his intentions may be, the chances that he will fulfill that pledge are small indeed, unless he and his company are kept under public scrutiny—and unless the government agencies charged with enforcing mine safety are watched closely, too.

Print journalists will do the job, but their impact is minimal compared with television, which must prod us when we begin to forget. Are CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the other correspondents who hovered around Sago merely empathetic voyeurs? Quite literally, we shall see.

Will the Media Forget Tragedy in the Mines?