WASHINGTON - January 6 - The deadly mine disaster that took place in Sago, West Virginia represents an enormous tragedy. It is now natural to wonder not just whether the mining company provided adequate protections for workers but also whether the federal government has done enough. If recent history is any guide, those answers aren't likely to reassure the public.
From day one, the Bush administration has done more to advance the interests of corporate elites than it has to address the health and safety needs of working families--and it shows. At every turn, the Bush White House has made the choice to push our country toward a regulatory system that favors cutting corners and costs for industry--be it coal, lumber, or pharmaceuticals--above the public good.
The administration has fallen down on the job when it comes to protecting workers, including miners. The two agencies charged with protecting the health and safety of Americans who work for a living--the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)--have become black holes, producing no new significant protective standards for workers. At the same time, the Bush administration has set back the possibility of future protections by wiping the agencies' agendas completely clean of priorities identified by previous administrations.
MSHA is an unfortunate case in point of a number of harmful patterns for this administration: putting "foxes in the henhouse," or appointing industry executives to lead agencies intended to regulate that very industry; rewriting agency agendas to eliminate important initiatives to improve safety and health for workers; and overseeing toothless enforcement that treats vital standards as meaningless paper.
The Sago mine tragedy underscores the obvious need for congressional oversight and investigation into a number of mine safety priority items that the Bush administration killed: proposals to create new regulations for life-saving escape routes, proposals to improve the devices that help trapped miners breathe, and more. MSHA explained the reversals took place "in light of resource constraints and changing priorities"--but it remains to be seen what those "changing priorities" actually are. A congressional investigation into the agency's enforcement capacity is also needed.
Sadly, this problem is not limited to MSHA. Foxes in the henhouse, agendas for inaction, toothless enforcement: these are now par for the course with the Bush administration. The public needs federal agencies to work on national solutions for national needs. When they are clearly directed toward carrying out this charge, the collective will of Americans is expressed and great things are accomplished. The results are often cleaner air, safer work places and even increased productivity. When agencies are held back from this important duty, the result can be tragic.
Instead of making the tragedy a moment for improvement in safety standards for all workers in the dangerous coal mining industry, the Bush White House defended its own record, called for no broader examination, and once again toed the industry line. The administration's wholehearted embrace of the corporate profit culture, it seems, prevents it from having the vision to address broader mine safety issues, such as respiratory device standards that have not improved in the 25 years since federal law began requiring devices that provide air for trapped workers for only one hour.
As investigations into the causes of the Sago mine incident unfold, we must not lose sight of the broader pattern in recent years of government failing to protect the health and safety needs of the public.
More information on the White House's health and safety regulation record is available at http://www.ombwatch.org/regs/patternoffailure.