As the world watched in hope that 13 miners would come safely out of the Sago mine in Upshur County last month, a realization grew that the men might have been able to walk to the surface, if mine chiefs could communicate with them underground, to tell them that the shaft was clear.It turns out that two years ago, the Bush administration rejected a proposal to require text-messaging devices to warn underground miners or direct them to safety.At Sago, the miners appear to have been as trapped by lack of information as much as anything else. Text-messaging might have told at least 12 of them to walk several miles out of the mine and into the fresh air, instead of barricading in place and waiting for a rescue that was too late for all but one.Three weeks later, the same equipment might have warned two Logan County miners sooner of the belt fire that eventually led to their deaths.
Thanks to changes rushed through the Legislature, text-messaging equipment is now required by law in West Virginia. Other states are contemplating similar laws. Members of Congress promise a federal bill based on West Virginia’s law.The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration could have done all this long ago.After a mine disaster in Alabama, both labor and industry representatives proposed to MSHA that “personal emergency devices” be used in the nation’s mines. An Australian company developed the technology 20 years ago after 12 miners died in Queensland.The devices received widespread attention several times. Even an MSHA official praised these devices in a 1999 speech in Canada and cited examples of how they helped to save lives.Yet MSHA never used its rule-making authority to require them all over the country. Instead, the agency made a more vague requirement for communications. The reason cited for vagueness was that technology changes quickly. But a conscientious agency would write safety rules to require a minimum standard of equipment and leave room for industry to use improved technology as it is developed.But safety and emergency preparedness have slumped in this agency since 2000. Under President Bush’s former MSHA chief, Dave Lauriski, safety rules were weakened to comply with industry wishes — and lifesaving PEDs, a technology with broad industry support, was neglected. The president’s current nominee to run MSHA, Richard Stickler, has an even less promising safety record.The day-to-day work of government is not glamorous. But when it is not done, people pay the price. Just as the Bush administration undercut the Federal Emergency Management Agency until it was an ineffectual shadow of its former self, producing the Hurricane Katrina debacle, this administration weakened MSHA.The pattern is disturbingly and tragically clear. When these agencies are mismanaged, people die.