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Jul. 8 2009 - 4:50 pm | 24 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Bring Back the Watchdogs

Miners take a shuttle car that transports them to work in the mine (NIOSH)

Miners take a shuttle car that transports them to work in the mine (NIOSH)

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    You have clearly pointed to the problem of regulations and regulators. And this leads to the problem with our new round of reforms: They are all tied to politics and politics rarely benefit people. Biggest lesson of our current crisis is the one gets the least amount of ink. Regulators were AWOL, they didn’t do their job, didn’t enforce existing law. When the SEC can’t uncover the oldest con game in business, after being told about it, something is seriously wrong. Should we have faith in our new reforms? I think not. All it takes is to install and incompetent or a compliant to nullify reform. Until we can find a solution to the systematic and systemic problems that politics brings to the table the welfare of our citizens are in jeopardy and have no recourse when injured.

    Can anyone think of any area of citizen protection that was not corrupted? Industry safety, Labor, Housing, Food and Drugs, Interior Department, education, clean air and water, science, FEMA, economy, trade issues, defense spending, it just goes on and on. Washington crawling with two legged vermin
    and nothing will change until we are rid of them.

  2. collapse expand

    Really interesting news. Do you think any of this will creep over into the Wall Street regulation discussion? Like looking harder at rules for due diligence on exploration companies, all those nickel mining outfits on the OTC and the AMEX exchanges?

  3. collapse expand

    I try to resist reflexive, gut-level reactions based on minimal information, but I’m totally with you when you say “Excellent” to the mining industry’s reaction to Main’s appointment. Some indicators can be taken on their face.

    I remember the days after Sept. 11, when this unbelievable acidic stench came all the way to Brooklyn, and I shuddered to think how toxic the air must have been at Ground Zero. And then there was Chistine Whitman, head of the EPA, declaring the air at the World Trade Center to be safe enough for people to return to their apartments downtown.

    Trust your nose. Trust you gut.

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    About Me

    Erik Reece is the author of LOST MOUNTAIN: A YEAR IN THE VANISHING WILDERNESS and AN AMERICAN GOSPEL: ON FAMILY, HISTORY AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD. He won Columbia University's John B. Oakes Award for distinguished environmental journalism, along with the Sierra Club's David R. Brower Award. He is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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