In light of the latest mine disaster, I especially miss Jordan Barab's writing at Confined Space. I've been hearing various reports about the collapse on various corporate media outlets. I hear "retreat mining" mentioned in every one. That's because that's what the now-trapped, maybe-dead miners were doing when the predictable happened and the roof fell in.
Retreat pillar mining is one of the biggest causes of mine roof-collapse deaths, according to studies done by the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, which concluded that "a coal miner on a pillar recovery section was more than three times as likely to be fatally injured" in a roof collapse than colleagues in other parts of a mine.
Would it have mattered if the mine were union, with union protections and union wages? This is what the owner of the mine has to say about anyone raising those questions - after he was finished trying to convince anyone who would listen that is was an earthquake that trapped his workers: (via)
During an interview with Fox News' Neil Cavuto in May, Robert Murray responded to a comment from Clinton, who asked a crowd whether they were ready for a president who is "pro-labor and will appoint people who actually care about workers' rights and workers' safety."
"Bob, do you view this rhetoric as pro-labor, anti-business, what?" Cavuto asked Murray.
"Absolutely not," Murray responded. "I view it as anti-American. These people should -- are misleading the American worker then they talk about jobs. These are the people advocating draconian global warming conditions that are going to drive American jobs to foreign countries and raise electric rates for everybody on fixed incomes."
He's a man of the people. You can read more of that concern for the suffering of the workers in his hysterical, pro-global warming testimony to Congress. But what about retreat mining?
It is "the most dangerous type of mining there is," said Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and Kentucky mine-safety official who is now a private attorney in Lexington, Ky., representing miners.
According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, retreat mining requires precise planning and sequencing to ensure roof stability while the pillars supporting the roof are removed.
The reason the practice is used is that it pays off: The last bit of coal taken from pillars is pure profit, Oppegard said. Plus, if someone violates rules during pillar removal and there is a collapse, the evidence of rule violations is gone, he said.
Why, that's convenient.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has cited Murray's mine in central Utah with more than 300 violations since January 2004, including 118 "significant and substantial" violations that are considered serious enough to cause injury or death.
And this year?
The mine has been inspected six times this year. The latest inspection, which took place July 5, is still open. During that episode, inspectors cited the mine for 11 violations for various safety infractions. A subsequent administration report showed 12 citations were later issued, of which six were considered serious enough to cause injury or death.
But not serious enough to warrant any fines:
One violation was for failing to adequately provide at least two escape routes inside the sprawling mine. No details were provided, but government inspectors did not think the violation was serious enough to recommend a fine.
Three of the serious violations were for failing to dispose or store flammable materials. Again, no fine was recommended.
Update: Another theme popping up in the coverage of the
story is that the mining industry is heavily regulated so hundreds of
violations is par for the course. Mick, one of Jordan's noble heirs, writes about what kind of special lunacy it is to consider a mine with hundreds of safety violations to be considered relatively safe. "Relatively" will get workers killed every time.
Look, mining is dangerous, no doubt about it. That's exactly why the industry should be heavily regulated with onerous and strictly enforced fines and penalties. And the wages paid to the workers risking their lives so that our televisions and air conditioners work should be richly compensated. Unions would - or at least should - go a long way to getting some of that accomplished.