MAC: Mines and Communities

Killing miners isn't accidental

Published by MAC on 2006-01-11

Killing miners isn't accidental

11th January 2006

The deaths of twelve miners in West Virginia, earlier this month, has belatedly triggered close examination of the workings of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The conclusions are appalling, with numerous instances emerging of bad safety records never properly addressed, derisory fines for violation, concealment of important data and - perhaps worst of all - a culture within the Bush regime of spiking vital legislation.

At the root of this decline is the de-unionisation of mine labour forces - a global phenomenon which is now about to strike Australia, and has already blighted Canada.

Mining a Dirty Business in More Ways Than One

by Joan Delaney, Epoch Times Victoria Staff (Canada)

12th January 2006

The shocking mine accident in the U.S. last week has brought mine safety back to the headlines after twelve underground miners lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Sago coal mine in West Virginia.

While the cause of the blast is still unknown, the Sago mine had been cited for 108 safety violations in 2005, double that of 2004, but the largest fine the mine owner paid was $440. Critics say that isn't nearly enough to push mine companies to improve safety conditions for workers.

It's not uncommon to hear of deadly mining disasters elsewhere in the world. Every month, it seems, tragic stories of mine explosions or flooding in countries like China make headlines. But the tragic incident in West Virginia brought the issue home, raising questions about the mining industry in Canada.

Joan Kuyek, National Coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, says mine accidents have been decreasing in Canada in recent years due to automation and a move from underground to open-pit mining. On the downside though, she says a decrease in unionised mines has led to a relaxing of safety standards in underground mines, and unions are being threatened by contracting out.

"It's our position that having a union makes a real difference in safety in mines because they can advocate on behalf of the workers. There's more and more mining being done by contract workers which aren't unionised, and the workers don't have the same ability to speak up as they would with a union. These workers don't have any protection."

Challenging the mining companies to better protect workers is an uphill battle.

"When you take on the mining industry," says Kuyek, "you're dealing not only with the mining companies but also with banks and investment firms."

The foreign affairs department says almost 60 percent of exploration and mining companies worldwide are listed on Canadian stock exchanges. The mining sector accounts for $42 billion in cumulative direct investment around the world, and it's expected a further $14 billion will be invested in new projects over the next five years.

Kuyek says these huge sums of money encourage the Canadian government to act like a press agent for the mining companies.

Some Canadian provincial governments, most notably B.C. and Ontario, have taken an anti-union stance resulting in loss of union strength and bargaining power. Retired Yellowknife miner Cliff Morosz, who comes from a family of miners and has worked in various mines across Canada for over 25 years, says the mining companies' efforts to replace unionised workers with contract workers doesn't bode well for safety underground or the wellbeing of the miners.

"The unions had to fight hard for every concession they got for the workers. The unions kept the companies honest. Now they go to places like Newfoundland where there's no work and they hire workers that aren't qualified and pay them less. If they complain about anything they get fired, because there's plenty more where they came from."

One of the most bitter labour disputes in Canadian history occurred at Giant Mine in Yellowknife in 1992 when Royal Oak Mines locked out the miners a day before they had planned to strike. The mine company then contracted the Pinkerton Security group to patrol the property. Eighteen months of tension, sporadic violence and skirmishes with police followed as Royal Oak-in an effort to bust the union-hired replacement workers to cross the picket lines.

Eventually a bomb was set in a mine shaft by striking mine worker Roger Warren who claimed he only wanted to scare off the workers from crossing the picket lines. Nine men were killed in the blast and Warren is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Giant Mine has since closed but, according to Moroz, almost 15 years later there is still ill-feeling among the people of Yellowknife over the incident.

Moroz says that, while he loved the mining life and made a good living at it, because mining is a dangerous job at the best of times the mine companies should be held more accountable.

"If they can get away without providing ventilation they'll do it. I've worked in mines where it was so smoky you couldn't see the instrument panel on the muck machine. It's all about the almighty dollar--the bottom line is all they care about."

But safety isn't the only problem in the mining industry. In December 2005 the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines was slammed for failing to protect the environment and taxpayers of Ontario from the poisonous after-effects of mining. A report by the Ontario auditor general found that at least 250 of the 5,600 abandoned mine sites in Ontario were "toxic waste dumps."

The situation is worse overseas, says Kuyek, where Canadian companies cause massive pollution and use heavy-handed tactics against locals who oppose their activities.

"Mining deposits in populated areas are more or less depleted now, so they're looking all over the globe for other sources of ore and a lot of that is on indigenous land in traditional communities. So they're having to displace indigenous people in order to mine. There's a lot of conflict around it and in Papua New Guinea people have been killed. There are demonstrations against Canadian mining companies in Chile, Romania, Bulgaria.."

In July 2005 the Liberal government rejected a call to hold Canadian mining companies operating abroad responsible for human rights and environmental abuses, opting instead for voluntary compliance from the mining industry. The proposal to hold the mining companies accountable came from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (SCFAIT) and was backed by dozens of NGOs. SCFAIT has concerns about the impact of Canadian mining in countries such as the Congo, Colombia, Sudan, and the Philippines.

Mining offences punished lightly

by Joby Warrick, The Washington Post

8th January 2006

Two winters ago, what had been a mediocre safety record at West Virginia's Sago Mine grew dramatically worse. Over 23 months beginning in February 2004, two dozen miners were hurt in a string of accidents. Federal safety inspectors slapped the mine with citations 273 times, or an average of once every 2 1/2 days.

Despite this record, the price paid by Sago's operators was light. Government regulators never publicly discussed shutting down the mine and never sought criminal sanctions. The biggest single fine was $440, about 0.0004 percent of the $110 million net profit reported last year by the mine's current owner, International Coal Group Inc.

Whether the mine's documented safety problems played a role in the fatal accident Monday is still unknown. But Sago's recent history illustrates what mine-safety experts say is a long-standing flaw in enforcement of federal mining regulations.

Although inspectors issue a blizzard of paper citations each year, these violations rarely translate into serious penalties, even for the worst offenders, according to government records and interviews with current and former regulators. Large fines are rare, and the most serious sanctions such as closing mines -- are almost never used, documents show.

This pattern has been even more pronounced under the Bush administration, which came into office with a promise to forge cooperative ties between regulators and the mining industry. During the past five years, the number of mines referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution has dropped steadily, from 38 in 2000 to 12 last year.

Meanwhile, inspectors who sought to impose large fines on coal companies have seen those penalties whittled down by agency negotiators and administrative law judges.

Last year, the operator of a Brookwood, Ala., coal mine, where 13 miners were killed in a September 2001 explosion, saw its fine reduced from $435,000 to $3,000 -- a 99 percent reduction. The Alabama disaster was the nation's deadliest coal-mining accident in the past two decades, nearly equalled by Monday's Sago explosion that left 12 miners dead.

"There are simply not enough incentives for safety built into the regulatory and compensation system," said Emily Spieler, an occupational safety expert and dean of Northeastern University's School of Law. "Pressure on regulatory agencies to allow unsafe businesses to operate is enormous, and the incentives to comply with regulations are small if the regulatory agency does not issue large fines."

Agency defends efforts

The chief enforcer of federal mining laws, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, defends its performance, pointing to a steady decline in the number or deaths and injuries in coal mines in recent years. Some of the decline has been attributed to increased mechanization, though both industry and union officials acknowledge improvements in safety practices.

"While MSHA has also pursued cooperative health and safety partnerships with labor unions, mine operators and industry associations, it has consistently backed up those compliance assistance efforts with strong enforcement against unsafe operators," agency spokesman Dirk Fillpot said in a prepared statement. Reporters inquiring about the agency's record were referred to the statement.

MSHA contends that its oversight is as least as robust as that of previous administrations, but the record is mixed. The total number of hours spent by inspectors inside coal mines has gone up, but the number of citations issued annually is down about 20 percent from a decade ago. The percentage of violations classified by inspectors as serious -- "significant and substantial," in agency jargon -- has declined.

Comparisons with previous administrations are complex because mining methods have changed and the number of underground mines has steadily decreased.

But agency critics, including several former MSHA officials, say relatively light sanctions, coupled with the current administration's more collegial approach to regulation, make it harder for inspectors to force noncompliant companies to change.

"There was a dramatic shift in MSHA's philosophy in 2001, with a new emphasis on cooperation by the enforcers," said J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the agency under the Clinton administration, "and it came at a cost of less enforcement of the statute."

A build-up of violations

MSHA enforces safety laws through the efforts of more than 350 inspectors who review safety plans for individual mines and conduct inspections to ensure the rules are followed. Penalties can range from a warning for minor offences, such as incomplete paperwork, to fines for "significant and substantial" infractions.

More serious violations can potentially result in escalating fines, criminal prosecution or even the shutdown of all, or parts, of a mine.

At the Sago Mine, near the central West Virginia town of Tallmansville, the increase in safety violations in early 2004 quickly drew the attention of agency inspectors. During the two years that followed, regulators dramatically increased their oversight, writing citations for problems ranging from falling rocks to excessive levels of highly flammable coal dust.

The 273 violations recorded in two years included 16 that were labelled "unwarrantable failures," a designation generally reserved for the most serious safety infractions, or those for which the operator had previously been warned.

The operator of the mine during most of the period was Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which was acquired in November by International Coal Group Inc.

ICG officials say they have worked with MSHA to correct safety problems since acquiring the mine. A spokesman declined to comment further, saying the company's focus remains the Sago accident.

According to agency records, federal inspectors issued 18 "withdrawal records" against Sago, forcing Anker to temporarily suspend some operations. But in each case, mining was allowed to resume after Sago officials took steps to correct the problems, MSHA documents show.

Over two years, Anker racked up more than $24,000 in fines, although the individual penalties were all less than $450, and many were $60. The average fine was $150.

Former agency officials say the MSHA regional office that oversees West Virginia mines was unusually aggressive and might eventually have forced the mine to clean itself up or face a shutdown. But ultimately the agency's response was too little, too late, said Jack Spadaro, a retired agency inspector and engineer in West Virginia.

"The mine should have simply been closed," Spadaro said. "The fines were absolutely absurd, but that's all the inspectors can do. The only other option they have is a closure order, and the managers in Washington won't let them close a mine."

Spadaro was granted federal whistle-blower status after being demoted four years ago because of what he says were disagreements with MSHA over his aggressive enforcement of safety laws.

Past criticism

Weaknesses in enforcement were the subject of criticism long before the Sago accident. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office faulted MSHA for failing to follow through when it found violations. Moreover, the agency's Washington leadership did "not provide adequate oversight" to ensure that inspectors were enforcing compliance, the GAO concluded.

Former MSHA officials and leaders of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents unionized coal miners, have accused the agency's Bush-appointed leaders of being too closely allied with the industry. They note that MSHA's first leader under President Bush, David D. Lauriski, was a former coal industry executive who advocated a less confrontational style.

Under Bush, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn. The agency launched a series of high-profile "cooperative alliance" agreements with the industry to promote safety through education, posters and other voluntary programs.

Fines in mining deaths cut back

by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

9th January 2006

The nation's coal mines have been required to pay only a fraction of the federal fines imposed after deadly accidents since 1999, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has levied $9.1 million in fines in the past seven years against companies cited for safety violations following mine fatalities. About 28% of that amount has been collected, according to data on MSHA's website.

At least $5.2 million in fines has been reduced to $2.5 million on appeal. An additional $2.2 million in fines is being appealed; about $1 million is listed as delinquent. Proposed fines and fines wiped out by bankruptcies account for the remainder.

MSHA oversees the nation's 1,400 coal mines and 75,000 coal miners. An MSHA team is investigating last week's explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia that killed 12 miners and sparked scrutiny of the government's monitoring of mine safety.

Since 1999, 206 accidents have killed 234 coal miners. Fines ranged from $113 to a maximum of $60,000.

From 1999 until last week, Sago had no fatal accidents, but it had been cited for 276 safety violations in the last two years and fined $33,600. It paid $23,986.

Its largest fines were often reduced by judges or through negotiations between the mine operator and U.S. Labor Department lawyers. That process, critics say, enables mine owners to wriggle out of severe penalties that are in place to keep workers safe.

"It hurts safety immensely," said Dennis O'Dell, head of health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America. He called the system "broken" because coal companies know they can win reductions in fines proposed by mine-safety inspectors.

"If I'm a coal operator and I get $10,000 of fines and I know I can get those reduced to $250, naturally I'm not going to take it as seriously," O'Dell said.

Tim Biddle, a lawyer who defends coal companies, said inspectors overreach in proposing fines. "The government is not able to back up its claim," he said.

Companies take safety "very seriously" to avoid losing miners — and to avoid shutdowns that occur while a fatality is investigated, Biddle said.

Biddle won a victory for Jim Walter Resources Inc. in November when a judge cut a $435,000 fine to $3,000 for a 2001 accident that killed 13 miners in Alabama. The judge said MSHA failed to prove wrongdoing.

Inspectors are required to consider a fine's economic impact on a company, yet fines can be small compared with earnings.

Consolidation Coal Co. paid $1,238 after a miner was killed at a Virginia mine in 2004. Its parent company earned $200 million that year.


by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

January 2006

On February 26, 1972, a Pittston Co. coal mine dam broke, releasing 132 million gallons of coal wastes into Buffalo Creek hollow in Logan County, West Virginia.

More than 4,000 residents were left homeless, 1,100 were injured, and 125 died.

Is history about to repeat itself?

West Virginia Public Broadcasting last week reported on a Massey Energy's Goals Coal Company dam in Raleigh County, not far from site of the Buffalo Creek disaster.

The Shumate dam is a pile of coal refuse 385 feet high.

And it sits right above Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Massey Energy and federal mine regulators say the dam is safe.

But the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) has fined the company a number of times for deficiencies.

Last year, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Dan Heyman sought access to the MSHA reports.

Heyman found out that in the late 90's, MSHA inspector Jim Elkins issued citations to Goals Coal Co. for not properly compacting the dam's fill material.

In one, in November 1998, MSHA fined the company for putting refuse down in layers as much as 10-feet thick.

These layers cannot be more than one foot.

The thinner the layer, the easier it is to compact.

It took three months for MSHA to release that citation after West Virginia Public Broadcasting filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

But while MSHA released some of the information, it left some out.

Here's something they left out:

According to the report, after inspector Elkins noted that a thousand people live downstream, he wrote "if the dam failed, fatalities would be expected to occur. It's reasonably likely an accident would occur if the condition continued to exist."

They also left out a concern that Elkins had about the dam a few months later.

Again, Elkins expressed a concern that people would die if Massey didn't correct another compaction problem.

Heyman reported that a few weeks after being cited for the 1998 violation, Goals Coal Co. corrected this problem.

But four months later, inspector Elkins wrote an even stronger citation.

Elkins noted that "much of one side of the dam consisted of soft, wet layers of coal refuse five to ten feet thick."

He wrote that the condition probably existed for several weeks.

The inspector added that people downstream would be "exposed possibly fatally if the dam blew out on this side and caused failure of the dam. It is reasonably likely an accident would occur if the dam filled up with water. This area would be the most likely to fail."

Heyman said that "this is the second statement that MSHA withheld from Public Broadcasting."

"We only know about the language that Elkins used because his statements were included in documents that MSHA released to an environmental group four years ago," Heyman said. "Back then, the dam had received little, if any, media attention. By the time we filed our request for records in August, MSHA had decided the inspector's concerns are not public information."

Heyman reported that Massey fixed the compaction problems cited by MSHA.

But others abound.

Heyman reported that MSHA has cited the impoundment 17 other times for violations in the last 10 years.

According to the report, these include three citations from 2001 to 2003, where MSHA cited the company for letting erosion gullies up to 10 feet deep and 12 feet wide form on the impoundment side of the dam.

MSHA also cited the company five times, from 2001 to 2003, for letting timber and brush piles build up around the dam or for using wood waste and scrap metal to build up the dam.

"Like the earlier citations, MSHA also withheld additional information concerning these violations," Heyman said. "But we can't confirm what MSHA withheld. We don't have copies of previously released documents to compare them to."

Heyman said that the Shumate dam is deserving of attention for two reasons -- one, its proximity to a school, and two, it was a Massey impoundment that failed and released about 300 million gallons of coal slurry in Martin County, Kentucky, five years ago.

No lives were lost in that environmental disaster.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, <>. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, <>. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).

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