Tuesday, April 20th, 2010
After at least twenty-five coal miners recently were killed in a mine explosion, news stories told us that the corporation that owned the mine already was facing $1.89 million in fines. Today I read that in 2008, this same company paid the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry. This was after pleading guilty to safety violations that caused a fire in another mine.
The fire trapped 12 miners, and two of the 12 died. The company had removed ventilation controls the year before and had not gotten around to replacing them.
But I don’t want to write a post about one company’s awful safety record. The question is, if this company was facing so many fines and settlements, why wasn’t it more pro-active in protecting its employees?
So often corporations seem to shrug off employee and product safety penalties as just the cost of doing business. Even when a product or workplace is known to be dangerous, often corporations will decide it is less expensive to pay fines and jury awards than to correct the danger. In some cases, such as with asbestos cancer, corporations often choose to spend money fighting regulation rather than protecting employees and consumers.
In the case of the mining industry, keep in mind there were accusations throughout the Bush Administration that mine safety regulation was too lax. In 2006, reporters for the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy Newspapers) news agency wrote, “Since the Bush administration took office in 2001, it has been more lenient toward mining companies facing serious safety violations, issuing fewer and smaller major fines and collecting less than half of the money that violators owed.”
You might remember the Sago mining disaster of 2006, which was in the news nationwide. Thirteen miners were trapped in a mine. The nation watched as workers raced to get to them, but by the time the miners were found only one was still alive. The remainder had run out of their emergency air supply and had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Sago mine, also in West Virginia, was owned by a different company from the Upper Big Branch mine that was the site of the recent explosion. But the story is much the same. In the year before the disaster, the Sago mine had been cited 208 times by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for safety violations. Of these, 96 were considered “significant and substantial.”
After Sago, Congress passed new mine safety regulations. And in 2009 mine safety advocates praised the Obama Administration’s choice of Joseph Main, a veteran mine safety inspector, to head MSHA. Yet now we face another mining disaster and another round of asking why it wasn’t prevented.
Mine industry observers say that too many corporations consider paying fines and settlements just part of the cost of doing business. It may be that the only “lesson” that will stick is to make the penalties more expensive than fixing the problem.