UNBELIEVABLY, President Bush’s head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration walked out of a congressional hearing on mine safety this week. Acting MSHA chief David Dye and aides simply got up and left, even though senators had more questions for them. Their arrogance is particularly pointed when West Virginians are still grieving the loss of 14 miners in the last three weeks.
But this seems to be the way of the Bush administration. Mine safety was not important to the political appointees running MSHA before the deaths. They showed their priorities by cutting funds, stalling on better mine communication requirements, and giving industry long-sought weaker safety regulations. One of those weakened rules allowed a belt line to double as an air intake at the Aracoma Coal Co.’s Alma No. 1 mine in Logan County. That shortcut had long been prohibited in most cases because, in case of fire, the airflow can carry toxic gases directly to the miners’ work area.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., bless him, suggested that MSHA officials remain at the Washington hearing. But Dye ignored the request from the people’s representatives. Instead, he and aides excused themselves by saying their attention was called to a mine fire in Colorado.
The Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. checked and found that the fire in Colorado has been burning since November and there is no immediate threat to life or limb.
Wednesday, the Louisville Courier-Journal called the Bush administration “a discredited regime.” The paper noted that U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao’s husband is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who enjoys the largesse of coal industry campaign contributions — but has not said a word on the administration’s disregard for miners’ safety, although he represents 15,000 Kentucky miners.
Meanwhile, here in West Virginia, MSHA showed that it has the ability to follow laws designed to protect miners. International Coal Group, owner of the tragic Sago Mine, tried to keep some miners from choosing the United Mine Workers to represent them in the investigation. By federal law, any two miners can choose anyone they want to represent them. Indeed, companies sometimes persuade miners to appoint the company as their representatives.
In the West Virginia showdown, MSHA officials defended the miners’ choice, which was perfectly legal. The agency went to court, and U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell agreed.
MSHA’s conduct in this instance was a welcome contrast to the Washington walkout. However, much remains for this agency to account for and to correct.