Jun 12, 2006
On May 20, an explosion in Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, Kentucky, killed five coal miners. Within a few days, two more miners died at other mines. These deaths brought the total killed in mine accidents already this year to 33, up from just 22 during all of 2005.
The outcry against the slaughter in the mines put Congress on the spot. It rushed to modify the federal mine safety law. But this was only a gesture aimed at quieting the outcry – even the coal bosses’ National Mining Association supported passage of this law!
The new law requires that operators provide miners with personal emergency breathing devices that can supply two hours of oxygen instead of the current one hour. In many countries, a 24-hour supply is required. Wireless two-way communication systems are supposed to be installed and miners are supposed to have electronic tracking devices – but not until three years from now. Abandoned sections of mines are to have stronger seals against accumulating methane – but not as strong as those required in many European countries.
Minimum fines for some violations are set for the first time, while maximum fines for some serious violations are raised. But nothing in the law forbids mine safety agencies from reducing or not even collecting the fines that are assessed – the current practice. There is nothing to stop mine owners from firing miners who complain about safety – another current practice. And nothing requires unsafe mines to be shut down. In the last month alone, the Darby mine had been cited 10 times for safety violations – but was allowed to go on operating until it killed five miners.
Mine safety can be improved – the same way it has been in the past, with miners organizing throughout the coal fields. A West Virginia coal miners’ wildcat strike in 1969 forced adoption of a state law providing compensation for victims of black lung – a deadly disease caused by breathing coal dust. Later that year miners forced Congress to pass the first comprehensive set of U.S. mine safety regulations. Miners themselves have repeatedly shut down mines when they knew they were unsafe.
Today, the miners can do it again.