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For Miners: Too Little, Too Late

CAP report offers solutions for how the government can avert future accidents and what the government could have done to help in Utah.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw a crescendo of workplace deaths, chemical contamination, environmental degradation, and carnage on the nation’s highways. Public outcry over these problems led Congress to enact a host of laws and create a number of new executive branch agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. These agencies were charged with establishing health, safety, and environmental standards and ensuring compliance by industry.

This investment has produced enormous dividends. Since 1970, workplace fatalities have fallen by 60 percent, from 13,800 to less than 6,000, air pollution has declined almost 50 percent, and annual traffic fatalities have dropped by 10,000 even as the number of cars on the road has greatly increased. Unfortunately, conservative policies adopted by the Bush administration are beginning to reverse these gains.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies is convening today to discuss the recent tragedy at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah and related failures of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. MSHA and other federal agencies now seem more devoted to protecting the profits of corporations than safeguarding the health and safety of the American people. In too many cases, conservatives turn a blind eye to corporate abuse, until tragedy or scandal heightens public pressure to take action.

That’s why the Center for American Progress released a report last month, “Safeguarding the American People: The Progressive Vision vs. the Bush Record,” that challenges the Bush administration’s neglect and instead offers a progressive vision for safeguarding the public’s health, safety, and general welfare. In particular, government must:

  • Identify public risks and vulnerabilities and make such information available to the public in an accessible and timely manner.
  • Adopt policies to prevent public harm, through both regulatory checks on corporate abuses and infrastructure modernization.
  • Provide oversight of corporations to ensure laws and standards are followed.
  • Ensure accountability by making decisions out in the open and engaging citizens in every step of the debate.

As the tragedy in Utah highlights yet again, the Bush administration has shirked its responsibility to safeguard the American people. Last year, 47 miners died on the job, the most in a decade, while the Mine Safety and Health Administration moved to ease health and safety regulations and reduce penalties for violations.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act, passed after 12 miners died in Sago, West Virginia in 2006, sought to fix problems in the industry and protect miners during emergency situations. Among other measures, the law aims to ensure that trapped miners can communicate with the surface, be quickly located by rescue teams, and have breathable air and access to “refuges” where they can await rescue.

Such measures might have saved the six miners killed in the Crandall Canyon collapse. Yet Richard Stickler, a former coal industry executive and current head of MSHA, has shown little initiative in implementing the MINER Act.

Today’s hearing will bring greater attention to such deficiencies. But ultimately regulatory bodies like MSHA must start placing the lives of the American people before the profits and connections of corporations.

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