George W. Bush is crass.
Before heading to Texas for a month of vacation–longer than the average worker’s–the President stopped at the local fire station in Green Tree, Pennsylvania, to (very publicly) visit with the nine miners recently rescued from a flooded coal mine. As could be expected, Bush hailed the episode as evidence of “the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation.” He praised the people “who heard the call that one of my neighbors is in trouble,” and he thanked the rescuers for “showing our fellow citizens that by serving something greater than yourself is an important part of being an American.” As for the miners, Bush observed, “It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that’s prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffer, all of us suffers.” (Syntax in the original.)
That spirit, though, was not present earlier this year when the Bush administration proposed cutting the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $7 million. The administration defended the 6-percent reduction by noting the number of coal mines has been decreasing. Yet coal mining fatalities have gone up for three years in a row. There were 42 mining fatalities in 2001, 29 in 1998. In March, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, maintained the funding cut would cause a 25 percent reduction in the government’s mine-safety inspection workforce. As of March, 612 federal mine inspectors were responsible for enforcing safety regulations in 25 states, and there were signs the system has not been functioning well.
Last September, thirteen workers died in a coal mine 2,140 feet below Brookwood, Alabama. A spark caused by a rock hitting a piece of machinery ignited a methane-fueled inferno. The disaster, coming 12 days after September 11, did not draw much media notice. But it did prompt serious criticism of the MSHA. In March, the United Mine Workers of America accused the MSHA of treating “serious violations such as thousands of feet of combustible materials…and disruptions in the mine’s ventilation system (which can lead to mine explosions)” at the Brookwood site as “minor infractions.” The union claimed that federal inspectors failed to return to check on violations at this mine, which is owned by Walter Industries, that the MSHA did not respond to “requests by the miners for increased inspections when serious hazards existed,” that the MSHA provided the company advance notice of inspection locations, and that a “MSHA supervisor divert[ed] an inspector away from an area of the mine that had known ventilation problems just prior to the explosion.” At the time of the explosion, the mine had 31 outstanding violations and federal inspectors had not bothered to determine whether they had been corrected. As of mid-July, the MSHA had not responded to these accusations.
The Bush administration’s less-than-ardent concern for mine safety is in step with its general attitude toward occupational safety. Fretting about regulatory burdens and calling for flexible standards, the Bush crowd has demonstrated more empathy with business owners than with workers. Twice, Bush has proposed decreasing the budget for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In its most recent budget, it called for reducing 64 slots in OSHA’s enforcement division. The White House has also decreased funding for the National Institute for Occupational Safety. And it deep-sixed workplace safety rules for ergonomics, replacing them with voluntary guidelines for certain industries.
Yet there was Bush–with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and MSHA administrator David Lauriski in tow–basking in the glow of the mine workers, while saying nothing about mine safety issues. He was exploiting a near-tragedy of the kind his administration has done little to prevent. “I want to thank you for the example you set,” Bush told the nine. Too bad, the miners could not return the compliment.