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 Home > Columns > Archives: Scott Lilly > MHSA and the Sago Mine Disaster

MHSA and the Sago Mine Disaster
How Many Brownies are there in this Administration?

by Scott Lilly
January 6, 2006

The terrible story from West Virginia that blanketed the nation’s television screens this week should be a further reminder of the cost of corrupt and incompetent government. There is virtually no one who will argue that the Sago Mine was operating at an acceptable level of safety. USA Today this morning reports that the mine

“had been cited for hundreds of federal safety violations since it opened in 1999, government records show. Among the infractions were at least 16 related to failures to prevent or adequately monitor the buildup of explosive gases in the mine.”

So why didn’t somebody do something? The answer to that is directly attributable to the individuals in whose hands the safety of miners and other workers has been placed by this administration and the prevailing mind set within the administration on any issue in which business interests differs from those of workers.

A year ago last November, President Bush’s appointed head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, David Lauriski, resigned his position citing family reasons. His resignation came shortly after a Labor Department Inspector General report confirmed a CBS “60 Minutes” report that under his direction the agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts. Two of those companies had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants.

But Lauriski is best remembered at MSHA for his attempt to push through a change in regulations governing coal dust levels that he proposed and lobbied on behalf of as a senior executive with Energy West Mining Company of Utah. Since the change uniquely benefited only his former employer, it was opposed by not only the Mine Workers but also mine operators other than Energy West. Lauriski was able to side with the other mine operators on a host of other regulatory changes detrimental to worker safety. According to the New York Times, MSHA under his direction

“rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.”

It took a full ten months for the White House to even nominate a replacement for Lauriski and the Senate has yet to act on his confirmation leaving the agency without a permanent director now for 14 months.

The administration’s efforts with respect to mine safety cannot be explained solely on the basis of relaxed regulation. The enforcement of the remaining regulations has also been under attack. As Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette yesterday, “What we have seen that is different with the Bush administration is that they put a little more emphasis on working with mining companies….”

One way of working with the mining companies is to cut fines. Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO estimates that the average fine per violation levied against Anker Group Incorporated, the company that operated Sago Mine, was about $247—little more than a minor expense of doing business.

A second means of cutting back on enforcement is cutting back on inspectors. Last February, President Bush asked the Congress to appropriate $280 million for MSHA, cutting the number of full time positions in the agency by 146. That proposal was approved by Congress just before Christmas on narrow votes in both Houses. Subsequently Congress approved a 1 percent across the board cut to all agencies, cutting the MSHA’s budget by an additional $2.8 million and leaving it about $10 million below the FY 2005 funding level after adjusting for inflation. As a result of Congress’s action, the cut in mine inspections will be even deeper than the level proposed by the White House.

What is even more disturbing is that this is not a problem that simply affects mining. At the time that David Lauriski was going out the door, a new Bush appointee to be acting director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency responsible for the workplace safety of most Americans who don’t work in mines was coming in. Jonathan L. Snare brings credentials to OSHA that should give pause to any working family watching television coverage of the Sago Mine disaster.

Before arriving at the Labor Department, Snare was a lawyer and lobbyist in the Texas-based firm of Jackson and Walker, LLP, a firm claiming to specialize in, among other things, “appropriate discipline of employees” and “union avoidance campaigns.” Among his clients was Metabolife International, the leading provider of the weight loss supplement Ephedra, which was eventually banned after the Food and Drug Administration received numerous reports of deaths linked to its ingestion. A criminal investigation of the company was launched following an FDA request to the Justice Department to determine if the company had made false statements regarding the supplement. Since then Metabolife and one of its cofounders has pleaded guilty to numerous counts of tax evasion. Twelve million Americans had been using the supplement before the FDA action.

While Snare’s lobbying activity involved him in some health and safety issues—although rarely on the side of consumers or workers—he seems to have spent much of his time on politics. He served as Election Operations Vice-President of the Republican National Lawyers Committee, General Counsel to the Texas Senate Redistricting Committee and General Counsel to the Republican Party of Texas.

There seems to be no end to the number of Michael Brown “act-a-likes” that can be found in the Bush administration. The corruption that is at the base of the remarkable fundraising machine assembled by this White Hose and their allies in Congress drives an ever increasing wedge between the interests of ordinary Americans, such as the miners who died this week in West Virginia, and the special interests that currently fuel the good life in Washington.

Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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