Labor Department Probes Sago Accident

The Labor Department is investigating the cause of the explosion this week at West Virginia's Sago Mine. Critics of the agency responsible for mine safety say it has been under-funded by the Bush administration, and that it is too cozy with mine operators.

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The Labor Department is investigating the cause of the explosion at the mine. Critics of the agency responsible for mine safety say it has been underfunded by the Bush administration and that it's too cozy with mine operators. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is part of the Department of Labor and is responsible for coal mine safety. Critics of MSHA, as it's known, say the agency has emphasized helping mine operators comply with the law rather than tough enforcement of it. The United Mine Workers union, for example, says some of the agency's fines for non-compliance are so low, less than a hundred dollars, that they're written off as a cost of doing business. Celeste Monforton was a special assistant at the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. She says with the new president came a change in philosophy.

Ms. CELESTE MONFORTON (Former Special Assistant, Mine Safety and Health Administration): When the Bush administration took office in 2001 and certainly their prerogative, they did have a different approach to miner safety and health in they really wanted to focus more on building alliances and partnerships with the mining industry where during the Clinton administration, we really had an emphasis on tough inspections and stiff penalties and, you know, new regulations and so on.

NAYLOR: In fact, George W. Bush's courting of the coal industry may have been a factor in his carrying West Virginia, a normally Democratic state in 2000. Still, MSHA did appear to be doing its job insofar as the Sago mine was concerned. The agency reported numerous violations of safety regulations and ordered parts of the mine shut down 15 times last year. Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan's West Virginia district is adjacent to the mine.

Representative ALAN MOLLOHAN (Democrat, West Virginia): The federal law is a good law. And if you look at the number of violations that this mine has received, or at least I'm advised they received in the last year, you would have to conclude that there's been a lot of inspection and a good number of notices issued.

NAYLOR: Another congressional Democrat, George Miller of California, says Sago's, quote, "long history of serious safety violations" demands that Congress learn why more wasn't done to keep these workers safe. Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Work Force Committee, is calling for hearings into mine safety. Ellen Smith agrees. She covers mine safety issues as publisher of Mine Safety and Health News.

Ms. ELLEN SMITH (Publisher, Mine Safety and Health News): So we know that MSHA was there and at least partially doing their job. But you have to ask: With an accident rate that was three times the national average, could MSHA done a little more? And you hate to Monday-morning quarterback on these issues, but it's terribly important that we do so so this never happens again.

NAYLOR: Congressman Miller says MSHA has been downsized by 170 positions since 2001 and that Congress has cut the agency's funding. He also charges the administration has appointed numerous officials to the agency who have close ties to the mining industry and who have rolled back regulations aimed at improving mine worker safety. MSHA officials were not available to comment. At his briefing yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the administration's record on mine safety. McClellan said the White House has pushed for a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of MSHA's rules. And Democrat Mollohan advises a cautious approach.

Rep. MOLLOHAN: Before we jump to the conclusion that this specific mine wasn't inspected adequately or that the company wasn't adequately responsive to the findings of federal coal mine inspectors, we just have to have an investigation be responsible to jump to that conclusion. But I do fully embrace the idea of having a congressional oversight of the agency and an investigation into this accident specifically.

NAYLOR: Mollohan says the tools available to federal and state mine safety inspectors are far better than in previous generations but adds that doesn't mean enforcement couldn't be better.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: If you'd like to learn more about why the mining industry is among the most dangerous in America, go to npr.org.

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