May 26, 2018
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Minding the Mines

Public outrage at the lack of federal oversight of the mining industry in this country seems to have dissipated. In April, 29 miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. But the image of the exultant Chilean miners returning to the Earth’s surface last month after being trapped for 69 days remains fresh in memories.

Some in Congress may be counting on the recent happy images blotting out the images of coffins in West Virginia, as they postpone new, stricter regulations on this dangerous industry. The GOP, which is averse to new regulations on business, may also be swayed by hefty campaign donations from the coal industry. Democrats also have happily accepted such donations.

The New York Times reported Oct. 29 that campaign spending by the coal industry “is on track to exceed that of the 2008 cycle, when the presidency was at stake and Congress appeared determined to move forward with a national energy policy designed to [cut] back on the use of coal.” Several members and candidates of both parties received more than $25,000 in donations from the coal industry, the Times reported.

“As of the beginning of October, coal mining companies had collectively contributed nearly $3 million to federal candidates, with three-quarters of the money going to Republicans,” the Times wrote. “In addition, the industry has spent more than $24 million on lobbying since the beginning of 2009.”

Fending off what is characterized as excessive regulation of industry is a safe political stance during a recession. But the government must remain vigilant in its oversight so workers, who often are willing to ignore risks because they feel fortunate to have work, are safe.

The explosion that claimed 29 lives in West Virginia was in a mine operated by Massey Energy. In 2009, it was cited for more than 500 safety violations, and had been cited twice the day of the explosion. Clearly, the regulatory agencies needed more teeth.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told the Times that mining companies were “very concerned about the cost of a range of regulations that have been proposed or are pending,” and even characterized the Environmental Protection Agency’s role as a “regulatory ji-had against us.” Such comments should spur federal regulators to be even more vigilant in enforcing regulations that protect workers, and should prick the conscience of members of Congress to improve regulations where needed.

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