news analysis

President Bush’s Mine Safety and Health chief David Dye shocked senators from both parties when he got up and left in the middle of a Jan. 23 Senate hearing on the West Virginia mining disaster. The message his action sent was clear: mine safety is not his priority. C-SPAN caught the scene for all Americans to see.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chaired the hearing, said of the Dye walkout, “I can’t recall it ever happening before. We’ll find a way to take appropriate note of it.”

In the first three weeks of this year, 15 coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky died on the job. A Jan. 2 explosion killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine, owned by International Coal Group (ICG). The one surviving miner remains in a coma. A roof collapse Jan. 10 took the life of a Kentucky miner. On Jan. 19, a fire swept through Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, W.Va. Two days later, rescue crews found the bodies of Ellery Hatfield, 47, and Don Bragg, 33. None of these mines is union.

Alma No. 1 used a ventilation and conveyor belt system that may have contributed to the spread of the fire. This system only became legal in 2004 when the Bush administration loosened up safety rules. Coal companies had been seeking that change for 15 years.

“We had major concerns about it,” said Davitt McAteer, who is heading West Virginia’s investigation of the Sago explosion. McAteer was an assistant secretary for mine safety and health in the Clinton administration. “If a fire could occur on a belt, that fire and the deadly gases the fire produces will be carried directly to the working face where the miners are.”

McAteer directly challenged Dye’s assertion that the technology to track miners underground is unproven. He cited success of pager-size tracking devices worn in mines in Australia. The cost of such equipment to track underground miners for Sago’s 145 miners would have been $100,000, he estimated. Miners at Sago produced $15.7 million in profit for ICG in the first three quarters of 2005, or over $100,000 each.

At the Jan. 23 meeting of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on mine safety, Specter demanded to know if any of the 208 violations of federal safety regulations at the Sago mine was a “causative factor” in the disaster.

“We’re still investigating,” said Ray McKinney, MSHA’s administrator of coal mine safety and health, looking bored.

Did the budget cuts that eliminated 183 mine inspectors impact enforcement of the law, asked Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) “No, I don’t think so,” Dye replied before hitting the door.

Dye said he had to leave to investigate a mine fire in Colorado. But a search by this reporter revealed the last reported mine fire in that state occurred in October 2005.

Meanwhile, the both houses of the West Virginia Legislature acted unanimously to require coal operators to stockpile oxygen inside mines and to supply tracking devices. They voted to fine coal operators $100,000 if they do not contact emergency officials within 15 minutes of an incident.

Lidella Hrutkay, a delegate to the Legislature from Logan County, the site of the fire, said she sat with the Alma No. 1 families during their vigil at the Bright Star Free Will Baptist Church. Miners who escaped the fire told her that if they spoke to the media, Massey Energy would fire them. “I heard the same thing from many different people,” Hrutkay said.

The International Coal Group is working around the clock to keep miners and their families quiet, and to keep the United Mine Workers of America out. ICG circulated a petition to remove the UMWA as the families’ representative in the state and federal investigations. Under the 1969 federal Mine Health and Safety Act, nonunion miners can retain the UMWA to represent them during the investigation of a disaster and the union can provide rescue teams.

“It is astonishing that ICG would go to such lengths to impede the investigation into what happened at Sago,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts, jaw set. “What are they afraid of?” The union, he continued is focused on finding the cause of the explosion at Sago “so that such an event never happens again — at Sago or at any other mine. That’s what the UMWA wants, and that’s what the American people want. We will not abandon the families of the miners who died there.”