New York Times Editorial: Listen to the Miners
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 6, 2010
At an emotional hearing in the West Virginia hills where 29 miners died in April, mine workers dared to tell lawmakers the truth. One miner said that any employee who publicly complained about lethal hazards was soon a “marked man” and risked being fired. Others described slipshod safety routines, weak regulations and regulators more interested in protecting management’s profits than the lives of miners.
This isn’t the first time these harsh truths have been spoken — only to have mine owners quickly return to business as usual. Senator Jay Rockefeller has vowed that things will be different. Rather than wait months for the formal investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion to play out, the West Virginia Democrat is appealing to President Obama for sensible immediate fixes.
He is calling for new criminal penalties for the firing of miners who blow the whistle on neglected safety rules. He wants regulators to stop giving management a heads-up before inspections, and to have working miners walk the tunnels with federal safety inspectors so they can share their expertise about the real dangers.
Senator Rockefeller also appealed to the president to hold mining executives more directly accountable for safety violations, and he called for White House action to reduce the huge backlog of cases tying up the enforcement process.
Companies cited for grave safety offenses manage to avoid penalties or threats of closure by gaming the appeals process, often for years. Dozens of companies have evaded a just reckoning, including the Massey Energy Company that ran up numerous violations at the Upper Big Branch.
President Obama can order some of these changes immediately. Reforming the appeals process also requires Congress to approve more funds to hire more hearing judges. Congress should also mandate that mining companies disclose their history of safety violations to shareholders, as a further market prod. Instead of waiting for the next tragedy, the White House and Congress should be working right now to make mining safer.