EVEN as the U.S. Senate unanimously passed mine safety reform that grew out of West Virginia’s Sago Mine tragedy, another Mountain State miner died on the job Wednesday.Miners die one or two at a time in West Virginia and throughout the coal-producing states. Because of the televised drama of the Sago ordeal, people are paying more attention.The Senate bill would make a good law. It would require more oxygen supplies for underground miners, raise penalties to as much as $250,000 for companies that violate safety regulations, and give U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao the ability to close mines that ignore safety orders.Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va., is co-sponsoring an identical version in the House. Some Democrats have their own mine safety legislation that would raise fines as high as $1 million, give the families of dead miners the right to participate in investigation interviews and require underground refuge chambers for trapped miners.
But all the laws in the world won’t do much good if they are not enforced, and that has been the failure in recent years.
Federal law passed in 1969 called for possible development of underground refuge chambers. But 37 years and seven presidential administrations later, that law has never been fully carried out.For years, President Bush has packed important government jobs with political appointees who care more about making corporate owners comfortable than about protecting the health and safety of workers. Now, the nation reaps what the administration has sown, in the form of more dead miners.So while the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration does need more enforcement authority, it also needs enforcement-minded leaders to use the teeth it has.In Kentucky, the site of six more deaths recently, Sen. Mitch McConnell praised the Senate bill. Monday’s Louisville Courier-Journal pointed out that “Any broad, aggressive bill will throw into sharp relief the inadequate job MSHA has done under Ms. Chao’s stewardship.” Chao is McConnell’s wife.We urge speedy passage and implementation of measures to make mines safer. But if the administration is not serious about preventing deaths, it won’t make much difference. Laws are only as good as their enforcement.