Mine Safety In Deep Trouble
October 4, 2007
Two days of Congressional hearings on Utah's recent mining tragedy made clear that when it comes to government competency, the Mining Health and Safety Administration is neck-in-neck with FEMA under Mike Brown. Whether the Department of Labor agency proves as hard to clean up is the less certain issue that Congress - and mineworkers - face. The two hearings, which were held seperately by the House and Senate Education and Labor Committees, turned into a civics lesson on "When Government Doesn't Work." MSHA's failure to communicate with families after the explosion of Crandall Canyon's mine roof has been pretty well documented. But the hearings additionally indicated that the agency lacked an effective inspection system, had no way to get needed information from other federal agencies, and still lacks a good-faith effort to evaluate its shortcomings.
As New Jersey Democratic Representative Robert Andrews noted to relatives of the six miners and three rescue workers killed, "We are sorry that government has let you down in so many ways."
The hearing's most startling moment occurred on the Senate side Tuesday when Kevin Stricklin, the MSHA public health and safety administrator, told the committee that a graduate student inspected the safety of Crandall Canyon. The grad student worked for Agapito Associates, a company that mine operators Murray Energy Corporation hired to inspect Crandall Canyon.
Stricklin testified that the written report from Agapito was submitted directly to MSHA. He did not know whether MSHA checked the graduate student's work. Stricklin additionally told committee chair Ted Kennedy that the Bureau of Land Management had discovered before the mine caved-in that Crandall Canyon was unsafe. But MSHA had no contact with the bureau until after the fact.
"This is like the CIA not talking to the FBI while we're getting attacked by terrorists," Kennedy said to Stricklin, ruefully adding that, "maybe the graduate student knew" about the Land Management's report.
Almost every witness testified that Crandall Canyon miner's lacked a voice, as there were neither represented by the United Mine Workers of America nor, apparently, provided a safety net by MSHA. Despite protests from the agency, The UMWA is now representing the families of victims and flew them in Wednesday to testify.
Along with relating their personal grief, the relatives also explicitly pointed out systemic failures before and after the tragedy."There are not enough safety inspectors and safety committees in non-union mines," said Steve Allred, brother of trapped miner Kerry Allred. Allred compared miners relying on MSHA safety inspectors to playing Russian roulette.
Utah's Republican Governor Jim Hunstman focused on the emergency response failure of MSHA. "There was a lack of defined authority and coordination." Huntsman said. "The [MSHA] experts clearly had not operated in deep mines before."
Other witnesses characterized MSHA employees as glorified yes-men to Murray CEO Jim Murray. "We thought MSHA was going to be in charge but every time we went down there [to the mine] it was Mr. Murray," said Mike Marasco, the son-in-law of miner Allred. Relatives and union representatives said Murray and MSHA have continually lied and withheld information.
Such damning accusations ultimately beg the question of what Congress can and should do. Right now, lawmakers still don't fully know what happened. Department of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao did not appoint a graduate student to head the official government investigation, but she did name two retired MSHA inspectors. And Chao has hampered a more independent investigation by not turning over subpoenaed documents to Congress and the state of Utah.
Congress also doesn't know how to address the broader issue of mine safety. After the Sago mine tragedy in West Virginia last year, Democratic legislators successfully made into law the MINER Act, which was supposed to address the very issues now being debated. Except for members of Congress from Utah, most Republicans didn't show up for either hearing, and those who did argued that more laws are unnecessary. "We're in the business of making good, enforceable policy," explained Jon Kline of Minnesota. "Sometimes in our frustration we just pass a law and say things are okay."
It will be a while until MSHA is judged "okay."