Bring Back the Watchdogs
Yesterday, President Barack Obama named Joseph Main, a retired longtime safety and health administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, to head the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
I don’t know much about the man, but I know this: the coal industry is unhappy. “It’s going to be frustrating having somebody with an agenda that is pro-union,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re not looking forward to it.” Excellent. I like him already.
As has been well-documented, George W. Bush had a habit–he made it a habit–to appoint as industry regulators men and women who had worked in, and benefited from, the very industries they were named to regulate. What happened next usually wasn’t pretty.
When Bush made David Lauriski, a general manager for Energy West Mining, the head of MSHA, Lauriski immediately set about to systematically weaken safety laws for underground miners–men and women who already had one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In the 1990s, MSHA proposed installing more “self-rescuers” (cashes of oxygen) in deep mines, but Lauriski said it was cost-prohibitive. Next thing you knew, poorly inspected mines were collapsing, and miners were dying because they didn’t have enough oxygen. Lauriski’s response? “The [coal] industry has always been good to me,” he told the Oklahoma City Journal Record. “I just hope that I’ve given back as mush as I’ve received.” He did, and that gift was paid for in blood money.
In 2000, a coal impoundment pond broke in Inez, Kentucky and 300 million gallons of toxic sludge flooded the communities below. When Jack Spadaro, the director of the Mine Safety and Health Academy, tried to hold Massey Energy criminally responsible for lying about the strength of the impoundment pond, Lauriski responded by changing the locks on Spararo’s office. The one watchdog for the people of Inez gets locked out of his office by the director of the country’s mine safety! The mind reels.
Robert Salyer made a great documentary about the whole affair called Sludge. It was produced by the heroic grassroots arts organization, Appalshop, out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Take a look at Sludge now. Among other things, it’s a lesson in how tenuous democracy becomes when its custodians lack the moral compass to correct the greed and abuse of industry.