The Difference Between The Parties Is As Deep As A Coal Mine

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The Baltimore Sun

The Difference Between The Parties Is As Deep As A Coal Mine

Robyn Blumner

A lot of people tell me that they are sick of both political parties. They claim the parties are essentially the same and it doesn't matter who is in power, because the Democrats and the Republicans are in the pocket of special interests and equally disengaged from the concerns and needs of average people.

To that, I proffer this example about mine safety, something in the news lately because of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.

Say you are a miner, a historically dangerous job in which more than 100,000 of your compatriots have perished since 1900. Who would you want to have in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the government agency charged with inspecting mines and promulgating and enforcing safety regulations: J. Davitt McAteer, the Clinton appointee, or David Lauriski, the man selected by George W. Bush? Here is a bit about each:

Mr. McAteer was a law student at West Virginia University when an explosion occurred at a mine near Farmington, W.Va., that killed 78 coal miners. The disaster led Mr. McAteer to organize fellow students to study the West Virginia coal industry. The resulting report helped persuade Congress to pass a series of safety reforms under the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The law revolutionized mine safety, requiring regular inspections of underground mines, fresh air supplies for miners and fines for safety violations.

After law school, Mr. McAteer worked to develop a mine safety program for Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

In 1984, he founded the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center, a public interest law firm, which is where he was working when President Bill Clinton tapped him to head up the federal mine agency.

Mr. Lauriski, President Bush's choice, had a far different résumé. He had spent 30 years in the service of mining companies. In 1984, Mr. Lauriski was employed by the Emery Mining Corp. in Utah when 27 people died in a mining fire. Safety violations contributed to the cause, concluded mine agency investigators. But Mr. Lauriski later defended his employer's safety operations before Congress.

In 1997, as general manager at the Energy West Mining Co., Mr. Lauriski lobbied for a substantial elevation in acceptable coal dust levels.

Because of its high combustibility, coal dust has been the root cause of a number of deadly mine accidents. Coal dust is also a demonstrated source of black lung disease, and experts at the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say the acceptable levels should be cut in half.

Unlike the safety-enhancement agenda that Mr. McAteer pushed, Mr. Lauriski's tenure at the helm of the Mine Safety and Health Administration was marked by the slashing of regulations. According to The New York Times, the agency "rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals." In 2004, soon after Mr. Bush's re-election, Mr. Lauriski resigned to "devote more time" to his family. It also happened to be shortly after a Labor Department inspector general's report found that the agency had engaged in improper contract-letting under his leadership.

Mr. Lauriski's replacement is Richard Stickler, a former coal industry executive who couldn't get confirmed even by a Republican-controlled Senate; senators expressed concerns about the safety records of the mines he managed. So Mr. Bush bypassed Congress and made a recess appointment in October 2006 to put Mr. Stickler in the top spot at the mine safety agency.

Now we have six men trapped for weeks in Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine and three men who tried to rescue them dead.

We have Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the mine and big GOP donor, repeatedly insisting that an earthquake is to blame for the mine's collapse when seismologists say otherwise.

We have added the phrase "retreat mining" to our vocabulary, a process of coal extraction that sounds astoundingly dangerous even if some experts say it can be done safely.

And we have Mr. Stickler issuing cloying statements about how "pleased" he is that Mr. Murray "has agreed" to drill another borehole to see if there is anyone alive.

Where are the statements demanding that all mines be equipped with the latest communications systems, so trapped minors can be located?

Where are the statements promising to fully implement the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act?

Contrary to the view of many, there is a real difference between the political parties, and if you were a miner, your life might depend on it.

Robyn Blumner is a syndicated columnist. Her e-mail is

© 2007 The Baltimore Sun

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