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Eye Opener: Does MSHA need more muscle?

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Updated 11:38 a.m. ET
As rescuers struggle to reach trapped miners and investigators prepare to probe the cause of Monday's blast, attention is beginning to focus on whether the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration did everything in its power to help avoid the disaster.

Though Congress passed major mine safety reforms following the 2006 Sago (W.Va.) mine blast that killed 12 workers, several Congressional Democrats pushed for more changes with a legislative package in 2007 designed to bolster MSHA’s enforcement powers.

The bill provided the agency with subpoena authority for the first time and permitted officials to stop production at a mine if a company failed to address violations a timely manner. The bill also mandated that MSHA take the lead on rescue efforts and provided the 2,400-man agency with money to hire a miner ombudsman to field whistleblower complaints and more family liaisons.

Mining companies would have been forced to address concerns with retreat mining, or the practice of removing coal pillars left in place to hold up a mine roof and would have faced stronger enforcement of the use of explosion-proof seals to close off abandoned areas of mines, according to documents provided by House Democratic aides.

Though the bill passed the House, it died in the Senate following a veto threat by President George W. Bush. His administration said the proposals, “would provide no opportunity for stakeholder participation in the regulatory process and would impose burdensome and unrealistic time requirements.”

But Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University public health professor and a former MSHA official, suggested the agency doesn't need more legislation to go after non compliant mining companies.

“The people who run [MSHA] know how coal operators think, they need to keep that in mind when they’re coming up with policy,” said Monforton, citing the long public health and safety careers of agency officials.

“They need to be as shrewd and creative and protective of worker health and safety as what they get from the other side. If people are gaming the system, fine, change it. That’s not the only way they can fix the policy, but that’s one easy thing,” Monforton said.

Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light, a veteran expert on the federal government, noted that most federal regulatory agencies have seen their political influence and enforcement powers diminish in recent decades.

“They’ve suffered job cuts and training cuts and some are stronger than others, but it’s very hard to find one that hasn’t had some problem,” Light said.

“How many times does the federal government need to fail before somebody on Capitol Hill gets it? We’ve got a systemic problem where we’ve got these breakdowns coming faster and faster,” he said.

So does MSHA need more or should it just work with what it already has?

RELATED: A Q&A with a veteran MSHA safety inspector

MUST READ: Check out the all-things-coal mining blog Coal Tattoo by Ken Ward Jr. of West Virginia's Charleston Gazette. It comes highly recommended by Washington folks familiar with the coal mining community.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

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Comcast ruling raises questions on FCC regulation: The ruling might be only be the beginning of a long campaign between Internet service providers and companies such as Skype, Google and Microsoft. The outcome is far from certain.

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Restrictions eased for federal agencies that use Twitter, blogs, wikis: Obama administration lawyers have clarified -- sort of -- how the Paperwork Reduction Act will treat the new forms of online interactions between federal agencies and the public.

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• IRS registration of tax-return preparers is long overdue: So says Post columnist Michelle Singletary.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | April 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Eye Opener  
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We tried the conservative way, and got more deaths, more profits, more misery. We got "guvmunt off their backs", didn't we, just like in the peanut and meat inspections, huh?

Now, only strict and severe punishment for safety laws are in order, after the prosecution of all those directly and indirectly involved with the continued lust for profit over human life.

Posted by: gkam | April 8, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Muscle is not enough.

Now, we need a fist.

Posted by: gkam | April 8, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The Conservative Way is a great metaphor for Validation of Greed, Lying, Cheating, Tax Evasion, Chikenhawk, racism, hate, murder, torture..

What is it that the US public will not get.


Posted by: Issa1 | April 8, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Negotiating for lower fines doesn't lead to safer mines, it only gives the mine owners more time to completely ignore the safety requirements they should have instituted decades ago. It's clear from the articles that greedy, uncaring mine owners don't take the MSHA seriously, since they know they can buy time and delay action, for decades it appears, jeopardizing the lives of the very people who make them rich.

Posted by: momj47 | April 8, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Do a lot of federal agencies need more muscle in regulating industries, both financial and otherwise...? Yes.

Will it happen under Obama? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

All industries will have weak, incremental regulations passed against them by this and the next Congress and as soon as the memories of their abject failures are gone and less attention is paid to the abuses of industry, those same abuses will go unchecked.

Posted by: dc1020008 | April 8, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

One of the problems is that major media ignores the problems until a disaster happens and then primarily focuses on rescue.
How is it that greedy and corrupting owners get away with ignoring safety? They do not get treated as the murderers that they are.
Their millions have bought anonymity.
The owner of that mine killed those miners just as if he had shot them down.

Posted by: robertsou | April 8, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Can't we just nationalize the mines?

Posted by: fireball72 | April 8, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

There should be no delays in handling a methane issue in a mine. If a mine is found to have improper ventilation the Inspector should be able to close the mine immediately. How can this even be an issue?

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 8, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Oh noooooo. We need LESS regulations! (Cue tea party roars at Palin rally). Regulators don't need more muscle, they need less! (Roar). We have to get the government off our backs! (roar)

Posted by: monk4hall | April 8, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

The guvmint should take ownership of mines that private enterprises refuse to run safely. The top ten executives of such mines should be sent off to suffer extended solitary confinement and be fined 99% of their net worths.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | April 8, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse


John Boehner

Posted by: knjincvc | April 8, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

What? More Socialism? More Communism? More big government? That's not what we need! We need more freedom! Leave the poor mine owners alone to persue the capitalist dream! They will take care of the problems themselves. You betcha!

Posted by: Lefty_ | April 8, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

What? More Socialism? More Communism? More big government? That's not what we need! We need more freedom! Leave the poor mine owners alone to persue the capitalist dream! They will take care of the problems themselves. You betcha!

Posted by: Lefty_ | April 8, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

More government is not necessarily better, nor is less government when it comes to safety issues. What is needed is true causes, not finger pointing. This incident may have been caused by hitting a pocket of gas which created the high levels. Again, the cause, not finger pointing.
Those that say all of these mines and other need to be closed need to be prepared for the high costs they will see in their power bills.

Posted by: gmclain | April 8, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Government, like the annoying attachment of human beings to a decent life (or any life at all), is bad for the American Free Enterprise System (tm).

Massey Energy's Don Blankenship understands this very well. Regular human beings' needs are a drag on his stock price.

Posted by: geezjan | April 8, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

One need only view a video of Mr. Blankenship assaulting a news cameraman


to understand the nature of the problem, both with him and his entire industry.

Posted by: hogsmile | April 8, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I am by no means an expert on mine safety. But for a few years, I supervised some projects using digital simulation to assist in mine saftey training. I learned a great deal about mine safety during that period.

First, a huge number of the safety violations the press loves to zoom in on are due to miners failing to observe company policies. They show up with the wrong boots. They are too lazy to stow supplies and equipment properly so it becomes a hazard. They fail to perform scheduled maintenance on equipment. They don't show up for training. The list goes on.

Certainly, there are violations where the company made a conscious decision that this new shaft does not require a dedicated ventilator; it can share the load with an adjacent shaft. This is where the judgments and attitudes of management and the inspectors can clash. That is why there is an avenue for judicial review.

To all those yelling and screaming for authorities to "shut down mines," if the UMW wanted that to happen, it would have happened A LONG TIME AGO. The UMW knows that half or more of the violations are due to the negligence or carelessness of its members. Does it want those members sitting around without pay while the company is "punished?" NO.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | April 8, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Mines that are unionized are far safer than the ones like Mr. Blankenship owns.

The answer seems clear.

Posted by: HillmanDC | April 8, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

When it comes to federal regulations and enforcement of same... George Walker Bush says it all.

Posted by: whocares666 | April 8, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid people in WV are likely going to be too hill-jack stupid to realize...

Maybe there is a mutant among them with 1/2 a brain that will take this the Blankenship guy out. Doubtful... But one can hope

Posted by: veronihilverius | April 8, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Obama's solution? Just have the Gov't take over all coal mines!

Then we could be like China, where the Gov't operates all mines, 3500 miners die every year, and you get arrested if you report on mine accidents too closely!

The elegant, leftist-facist-marxist solution!

Posted by: pgr88 | April 8, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Hey, "veronihilverius," I don't think much of your less than veiled incitement to violence. Nor is your comment about West Virginians being "jack-hill stupid" any better.

Blankenship doesn't live in West Virginia, and his company's headquarters are in Richmond. And there are thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of West Virginians who'd like to see him lose his job and face criminal prosecution. That's the way our justice system is supposed to work.

The fact that the men and women who work for Massey in WV don't go on strike can be attributed to (a) a lack of jobs in much of the state, (b) Blankenship's demonstrated willingness to break unions and hire scabs, and (c) fear of speaking out. Go to YouTube and search "Kayford Mountain" - see what a bunch of Massey thugs did at a picnic being held by locals who are against mountaintop removal. (And despite the video, it took the state police months and months to get around to investigating it.)

So please, stop demonstrating your own ignorance and reliance on stereotypes and do some actual research.

Posted by: blondie3 | April 8, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Muscle? Have we no Mining safety legislation at all? Try WILL. Try actually doing something about safety violations instead of blaming the victims, which is the usual Republican ploy. Try DOING SOMETHING.

Posted by: bong_jamesbong2001 | April 8, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Do a lot of federal agencies need more muscle in regulating industries, both financial and otherwise...? Yes.

Will it happen under Obama? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
"All industries will have weak, incremental regulations passed against them by this and the next Congress and as soon as the memories of their abject failures are gone and less attention is paid to the abuses of industry, those same abuses will go unchecked."Posted by: dc1020008 | April 8, 2010 11:36 AM

You did in fact mean all prior republican administrations, didn't you? Grow up.

Posted by: mtravali | April 8, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

After being in a Kentucky coal mine for just a couple of hours I gained a deep respect for the extremely dangerous and difficult nature of coal mining in the Appalachian mountains. We rode into the mine shaft laying four abreast on a small rail car. The mine shaft was nowhere near tall enough at any place to stand up. When we weren't laying in a transport with our faces hardly a foot from the ceiling, we were crawling on all four. Felt claustrophobic for the first time in my life. Those mines are running 24/7, it makes no difference if the sun is out.

God bless them, each and every one. The money is very good for workers with little formal education. But they earn every penny. It's always going to be a dangerous occupation. 2008 and 2009 were the "safest" years on record for coal mining in terms of fatalities. But here we are.

There's a thin line between safe and dead in those mines. Always will be. China's coal mining industry experiences several thousand deaths every year.

Posted by: DagnyT | April 8, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Every responsible TV channel should show the documentary, Harlan County, Kentucky. It was filmed in the 1970s. It shows, in painful and enraging detail the attempt of 160 brave miners trying to get the UMW ( the United Mine Workers) to represent them. It is a stunning heart-breaking documentary, in the main, because so little has changed. Since the 1970s, laws have been passed, standards have been set, fines have been levied, regulations announcd. Nothing has changed. The bosses still rule completely. The MSHA is either totally corrupt or totally incompetent. They are beyond pathetic. I could easily see this terrible neglect and contempt for human life as par for the course under a Republican administration but what was done about mine safety under Clinton? I don't know what, if anything , is being done in the Obama administration about mine safety. Coal miners are at the bottom of the power grid. They are poor, isolated, generally with only the most basic of educations. Without a union to speak for them they are absolutely void of any leverage or power. They can fairly be compared with the serfs in pre-revolutionary Russia. No, I'm not a Communist. I am an educated, 80 year-old who lived in Central Kentucky almost all of my life. Eastern Kentucky looks like nothing so much as a third-world country. They are still a proud people and will probably resent my description of them. The towns will be furious. I don't care. Ask the channels to show this documentary. Because of the iron grip the mine owners had, It didn't cause much change when it was first shown. Maybe the new disaster in West Virginia and the outrageous and callous responses by Mr. Blankenship will prompt Americans to demand more from their government.
Make no mistake. The mine owners have absolute power and, as we all know by now, absolute power breeds absolute corruption. It's staring us in the face.
If The Tea Partiers, with their well-fed bodies and boundless need to save the country, would dump the empty, cutsey, often racist posters they like to wave about and focus their energies on a very concrete problem in our country a thankful people would see them as a force for good instead of ridiculing the empty, mindless rhetoric fed to them endlessly by Fox and company. .

Posted by: m_richert | April 8, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

There is a politically incorrect thing that should be emphasized. When the Administration and environmentalists want to abolish coal as a fuel, why should any sane period put any long-term money into the mines? It is more feel-good to denounce greedy Republicans rather than Democrats who put theological issues like global warming above concrete wages and conditions for poor workers.

Posted by: jhough1 | April 8, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

When will Ronald Reagan's legacy finally end? "Government is the problem" has fostered, not only deregulation, but a disregard for even the most basic oversight by regulators. No one wants oppressive regulations, but business operates smoother with enough regulation so that order is preserved, that tragedies like this are avoided. When will we learn that Mr Reagan was absolutely wrong! Poor management is the problem, whether in government or private industry. Healthy regulation (government) leads to healthy industry!

Posted by: gss49 | April 8, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

It's the GOP way to talk a regulation to death and then express outrage when lack of regulation results in disaster.

Posted by: st50taw | April 8, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Why is it every argument from a liberal uses words like "heartbreaking stories" and "inhuman?"

It's like Louise Slaughter thinking that its OK to pass $1 Trillion Obamacare because she supplied some story (which was actually fake) about a lady who re-used her dead sister's dentures.

Its all about emotion - no facts.

Posted by: pgr88 | April 8, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

OSHA has the power to shut jobs down, and press criminal charges against owners, project managers (mine operators), construction managers (mine superintendents) and they can also fine those individuals as well as the companies they work for.

Why doesn't MSHA have similar authority? Ah yes, GW Bush's threaten veto. Wonder if anyone has asked him how he feels about the deaths of 25 miners and how that balances against his threat of a veto. But then that would be tacky.

It will be interesting to see if a class action suit doesn't evolve from this. Perhaps if it does and is successful that will get the attention of the owners.

Posted by: rsleonard9 | April 8, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

2008 and 2009 were the safest years on record in terms of mine fatalities.

Coal mine fatalities dropped 16% during 2001-2008 compared to the period 1993-2000.

Coal mine fatalities 1900-2009 (office workers included starting in 1973)

Some of the improvement in miner safety statistics is due to increased surface mining.

An average 34 coal miners a year have died on the job during the previous 17 years. Not all while in a mine shaft, some of that's transportation-related, etc.

Posted by: DagnyT | April 8, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

It's kind of amazing the Republican sheep scream less government but when something like this happens its because there isn't enough government. Such hypocrites. The owner of this mine should be arrested for murder but it won't happen because the Republicans have tied the hands of the government to protect their corporate buddies and unless the whimpy democrats do something it will just continue.

Posted by: imgibson | April 8, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

So, Bush again. Remember Bush's speech way back in '01 that gave the richest among us the biggest tax cuts among us? He said that it was time to reward those of us "who work the hardest". That was George's world, the only world he ever knew. I'm sure no one works harder than Mr. Blankenship, the Massey CEO. It's hard work hiring all those lawyers to fight the many fines that he should have paid. I believe he's going to pay now. I see many lawsuits on top of the many new fines.

Posted by: curtb | April 8, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

mining is an inherently dangerous job, so the occasional accident shouldnt shock anyone. that said, these people were cited, what, 53 times? just like with the financial crisis the issue seems not to be lack of regulation or regulators but an actual inability of government to enforce the rules its churns out.

Posted by: dummypants | April 8, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely! What we're getting is more smokescreen. In fact the guy at the top of that corporation needs to go to prison. He's bought off one to many people.

Fining mining corporations just doesn't work. What would work is filing criminal charges for the guy at the very top. That would work.

We need manslaughter charges filed for every minor that died.

Posted by: reiley | April 8, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

All your people blaming Reagen, Conservatives, etc. To the best of my knowledge, the dems run the federal government.

Posted by: mike83631 | April 8, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

This is the end results of the GWB administration enforcing less restrictions against high risk companies...

And the Republicans thinks we are going to give them back the power too rule?

Puh-leeze! I encourage those teabaggers to continued to shout as loud as they can, no doubt with the help of the microphones coming from the media!

In the end come November it will the "Silence Majority" that will rule the day!!!!

And what was that all about with Sara Palin with Michelle Bauhman (?) and mostly white headed grandmothers in the audience?

That party is in so much disarray and chaos that come November olny ones who are going to be charge up to vote on the "right" are going to be the "Loud Minority" which consist of 23% of their base...called the teabaggers!

Posted by: dove369 | April 8, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

This begs the question: To what degree is there a revolving door between the mining industry and state/federal regulators?

Posted by: nbahn | April 8, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

This is what you get with little to no regulation. The bank meltdown is what you get with no regulation. The republicans love to deregulate industry because it puts more money in their pockets and creates more misery for workers and their families. The SC has ruled corporations are people, so try the CEO's for murder.

Posted by: blarsen1 | April 8, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Because the company has the right to appeal findings (which this company did at EVERY turn), sanctions are almost always reduced or eliminated in the court. These criminals fought every attempt to be brought into compliance with existing rules which finally resulted in the deaths of these fine men who worked in the mines.

Not only should repeated violations be quadrupled in monetary fines, any death of a miner as a result of a company not fixing the problems that had been previously identified, should result in the imprisonment of company officials and board members.

We shouldn’t discriminate as to which ones go to jail as the event that caused the death of miners certainly wasn’t discriminatory. Again, not only should the company face severe fines, the CEO & Board should face jail terms for murder.

Posted by: 4Jaxon | April 8, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

It is obvious that it is cheaper to pay the fines (after appealing the citations) than it is to correct the abuses. It's a relatively simple workaround for those whose risk management assessment is that they will always profit, even if their employees lose their lives.

Posted by: dcasker | April 8, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

George Bush was was a disaster. And in his aftermath (a president with no legacy just an aftermath) may we learn from the mistakes he made and we made by voting him in. This mining disaster though, is a place where workers' rights need to be addressed. This mine hd how many citations against it for dangerous working conditions? Thousands, I hear. The owners should lose their ownership and the workers should get to form a union and run the mine.

Posted by: glenglish | April 8, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

People like Monforton and Light as well as many others ought to keep their two cents to themselves and mind their own business.

These people who proport themselves as experts and get their two cents into the latest tragedy need to focus on things that concern them.

Posted by: john3339 | April 8, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

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