Goin’ down, down

Here’s the scenario: It’s an average day for the miners who toil underground, digging up the precious commodities that keep our society running. Artificial light illuminates the men as they grapple with heavy machinery, carving out pockets of ore and sending it up on a conveyor system. Suddenly, the mine goes black. A fire has broken out in one of the subterranean chambers, filling the mine with toxic smoke and sending the workers scrambling for a safe place to await rescue.

What’s the outcome? Well, if you’re a potash miner in Canada, you run to a 4,500-square-foot refuge room stocked with enough food, water and oxygen to sustain you and your 71 coworkers long enough for a crack team of local rescuers to locate you and guide you to the surface.

But if you’re an American coal miner, the odds say you die waiting for rescuers that have no way of finding you, huddled as you are with your coworkers behind a cheap plastic curtain, scribbling notes in the dark to family members you’ll never see again while toxic fumes lull you into eternal slumber.

What’s wrong with this picture? Why are workers in Canada afforded adequate safety protections while their counterparts here die for lack of even the most basic precautions?

Maybe it’s because the Canadian government actually regulates its industries while our government is more focused on protecting the mine owners’ profits than the lives of those who make those profits possible.

The Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., where 13 miners were killed last month, racked up more than 200 safety violations in 2005. It had been fined an average of $118 per violation—chump change to a company that pockets millions every year. The mine is regulated by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which could have easily labeled the company a repeat offender and ordered it closed until International Coal Group, the owner of the mine, fixed the problems. Doing so may have saved lives.

But it didn’t do so. Why? Because the MSHA has been stocked by the Bush administration with coal industry executives and lobbyists like David Lauriski, who, when appointed assistant secretary of labor for mine safety, announced that his goal was not to enforce safety standards, but to gut them. Lauriski’s ideas for improving safety included cutting the number of mine inspectors by 25 percent, reducing coal dust sampling in the mines and getting rid of the chest X-ray program that tests miners for black lung disease.

So far, he’s doing a heckuva job.

It also isn’t a coincidence that the coal lobby gave more than $7 million to Republican candidates since 2000. In return, Republican appointees in the MSHA have turned a blind eye to blatant safety violations, handing out just 37 large fines between 2001 and 2005, compared with 118 in the four years prior. So-called “Reformists” in the Republican-led congress have suggested raising the maximum fine for safety violations, but what good does it do if the maximum fine is almost never imposed anyway?

Appalachian states are rushing to craft new safety laws to fill in the gaps of federal inspection and enforcement. But, despite their wealth of natural resources, these are some of the poorest states in the union, and it’s hard to foresee them being able to afford a more robust system than the one that is supposed to already exist at the federal level.

A note to our nation’s miners: Looking for better working conditions? They’re hiring up in Canada.