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About Northwest labor press. (Portland , Ore.) 1987-current | View Entire Issue (Jan. 20, 2006)
Says victim’s son
West Virginia miners afraid to speak out about safety problems
Lawmakers say Bush
Administration has filled
worker safety agencies
with industry insiders and
TALLMANSVILLE, W. Va. —
Workers at the non-union Sago Mine
knew the facility was unsafe, but were
afraid to speak out, according to the son
of one of 12 miners killed in the under-
ground explosion on Jan. 3.
But while John Bennett said his fa-
ther and the other miners were afraid to
discuss the mine’s problems, AFL-CIO
officials and federal reports say that
Sago, in rural West Virginia’s traditional
coal mining area, was an extremely
And a list published by the federal
Mine Safety and Health Administration
(MSHA) shows it dumped several rules
four years ago that could have bettered
safety at Sago.
The explosion at Sago killed 12 min-
ers underground and left a 13th in the
hospital in critical condition. Lethal car-
bon monoxide was measured at three
times the levels a person can safely
breathe for a maximum of 15 minutes
In the past two years, federal MSHA
inspectors cited the Sago Mine, (whose
present owner, the International Mine
Group, bought it two months ago,)
more than 270 times for safety viola-
tions. Many were serious — such as
collapsing roofs, faulty tunnel supports,
inadequate ventilation and dangerous
accumulation of flammable coal dust.
“My dad would come home at night
and tell me how unsafe the mine was,”
John Bennett said during an interview
on NBC’s Today Show. His father, Jim
Bennett, was among the 12 dead.
“We have no protection for our
workers. We need to get the United
Mine Workers back in these coal mines
to protect [against] these safety viola-
tions, to protect the workers, ...” he said.
United Mine Workers President Ce-
cil Roberts called Sago management’s
failure to tell miners about conditions
and violations at the mine “inexcus-
able,” the Associated Press reported.
Jim Bennett, who had worked in the
mines for 30 years, was scheduled to re-
tire in April, his son said. Several of
those killed were veteran miners in their
50s and 60s.
John Bennett said the families want
answers and they want accountability.
“A lot of us can’t understand how, in
2005, this mine could have 208 safety
violations,” he said.
Since October, MSHA has issued 50
citations to Sago, some as recently as
Dec. 21, including citations for accu-
mulation of combustible materials such
as coal dust and loose coal. The agency
said it would begin an in-depth investi-
gation, including “how emergency in-
formation was relayed about the
trapped miners’ conditions.”
Safety experts question whether an
investigation will result in any change.
And AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
says the accident points up the Bush
Administration’s lax regard for worker
safety and health, in the mines and else-
A 2005 report by the AFL-CIO
found that at MSHA, 17 standards to
improve safety and health for miners
have been withdrawn since President
Bush took office, including air quality,
chemical substances and respiratory
standards. For the most part at MSHA,
those standards that have been proposed
during the Bush Administration favor
industry by moving to roll back exist-
ing protections. There are no pending
standards to protect miners from haz-
ards on their job.
Moreover, MHSA’s budget for the
enforcement office also has declined. In
2001, the mine safety agency had 1,181
coal mine enforcement workers. Last
year, the agency had about 1,080 work-
ers. And President Bush has proposed a
further cut to 1,043 in the current fiscal
year budget. The FY 2006 budget pro-
poses $280 million in funding, ($118
million for coal mine enforcement)
compared with $279.2 appropriated in
FY 2005. Adjusting for inflation, that
represents a $4.9 million cut in real-dol-
lar terms from FY 2005 appropriations.
Jordan Barab, a former special assis-
tant at the Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, and a health and
safety expert for AFSCME and the
AFL-CIO, said the federal government
is doing little to protect workers. “The
fact is Bush has not requested budgets
for MSHA or OSHA that even keep up
with the rate of inflation and mandatory
pay increases over the past several years
while penalties for OSHA or MSHA vi-
olations remain laughably low,” Barab
wrote on his Web site, www.Confined
The 2005 violations at Sago resulted
in just a few thousand dollars of penal-
ties. Most of the fines ranged from $60
to $440, even though many appear to be
U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-CA)
and Major Owens (D-NY) have called
for congressional hearings into the Sago
accident — and mine safety overall.
In a letter to Rep. John Boehner (R-
OH), the chairman of the House Edu-
cation and the Workforce Committee,
the congressmen pointed to the Bush
Administration’s appointment of nu-
merous officials to MSHA who have
close ties to the mining industry.
“The committee should investigate
whether the Bush Administration has
employed people with proper regula-
tory experience in leadership positions
at MSHA. Many senior MSHA offi-
cials have come directly from the min-
ing industry, raising concerns about
their ability to effectively oversee the in-
dustry and protect its workers,” the let-
The United Mine Workers has com-
piled a list of MSHA officials’ connec-
tions to the mining industry. For exam-
ple, President Bush’s first appointment
to MSHA was Assistant Secretary of
Labor for Mine Safety and Health
David Lauriski, a longtime manage-
ment official in the mining industry. In
addition, Deputy Assistant Secretary of
Labor for MSHA John Caylor held
management jobs with Cyprus Miner-
als Co., Amax Mining Co. and Magma
Copper Co. Deputy Assistant Secretary
of Labor for MSHA John Correll
served in management posts at Amax
Mining and Peabody Coal companies.
Special Assistant for MSHA Mark Ellis
served as legal counsel to the American
Mining Congress. And Chief of Health
for Coal Melinda Pon was a manage-
ment official at BHP Minerals-Utah In-
“With mining company officials at
the helm of MSHA, the agency’s focus
has clearly shifted away from protect-
ing miners,” Miller wrote. “These offi-
cials, in the last five years, have rolled
back a number of regulations aimed at
improving mine worker safety.”
(Editor’s Note: Press Associates Inc.
contributed to this article.)
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