September 9, 2008

Coal Industry Complaints Are Hollow

Forty-seven coal miners were killed on the job in 2006, the worst year for mining deaths since 1995.

Those deaths, especially the high-profile disaster at Sago Mine in central West Virginia where a dozen miners were killed, pressured Congress to beef up mine safety rules.

Now coal executives are complaining that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is being too tough on them, increasing their costs and hurting productivity at a time when demand for coal is increasing.

Tough. That increased demand is fueling higher prices, which are driving coal companies to push for higher and higher productivity.

That must not be allowed to come at the expense of safety -- not unless this nation wants to see more Sago disasters.

MSHA says it has more than doubled the fines levied against coal companies for safety infractions over last year.

The coal industry claims that MSHA is just trying to look tough in response to political pressure that followed Sago and other fatal disasters.

"Some of these citations or violations are extremely petty and probably in no way contribute to safer conditions," National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich told The Associated Press.

The day after that story was published, MSHA recommended a criminal investigation of safety violations discovered in its probe of last year's Crandall Canyon mine disaster in Utah, which killed nine.

Frankly, it's hard to take seriously accusations that President Bush's MSHA is being too tough. For most of his administration, the safety agency's focus has been on "compliance assistance," an industry-friendly approach that stressed cooperation over confrontation.

Combined with budget cuts that have limited the number of inspectors, MSHA has hardly been a pit bull.

Coal mining has always been an extremely dangerous occupation. Pressure to produce more will only make it more dangerous as companies face temptation to cut corners. That will make MSHA's job all the harder.

But the days when miners were treated as expendable commodities are over. MSHA should do its job, and the coal industry should not complain.

(c) 2008 Roanoke Times & World News. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.