Our View: Congress must make sure inspectors are doing the job
It's a scandal if coal miners died because a federal mine-safety official knowingly put coal production above safety, as The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
An employee of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration told the newspaper that a federal mine inspector told him he tried to close part of a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia because it was unsafe.
The inspector reportedly said he was overruled by a superior who told him to back off. A fire broke out in that part of the Alma No. 1 mine a few days later on Jan. 19, killing two men.
If the Republicans who control Congress really want to know the truth about enforcement of mine-safety laws, they would convene a real investigation, complete with subpoenas and sworn witnesses - the kind that Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is demanding in the wake of the latest revelation.
A real investigation might embarrass the Bush administration and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees mine safety and is married to the Senate's second-in-command, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But it also could slow the loss of life in the coal mines - 26 dead underground so far in 2006, including five in Kentucky.
“There is no way that the Bush administration can be trusted to investigate itself in this very, very serious matter,” said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House committee that oversees worker safety.
According to the Post-Gazette, Danny Woods, a former mine inspector who now works in an MSHA educational field office, said that inspector Minness Justice told him that he tried to issue a closure order because of the large buildup of flammable coal waste along the mine's conveyor belt and concerns about the fire suppression system.
“He was told to back off and let them run coal,” Woods said, “that there was too much demand for coal.”
Justice did not respond to the newspaper's requests for comment. But he gave a lengthy statement to federal investigators.
In addition to the MSHA investigation, the U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the mine fire, amid evidence that someone repeatedly reset a monitor after the fire first broke out, thereby shutting off the alarm that should have warned those underground to flee.
There also is evidence that the fire suppression system sent out only a useless trickle of water, according to the story, and that rescuers were given an inaccurate map.
Massey Energy has long been known for putting production ahead of safety. CEO Don Blankenship even sent out a memo last fall, warning mine superintendents that their No. 1 priority was to “run coal.”
Congress should make sure that running coal isn't MSHA's No. 1 priority as well.
- Lexington Herald-Leader