Anyone who has worked in a coal mine knows that only loyalty to the company bottom line could raise someone from the ranks of a coal miner to that of mine management. Coal miners also know that when it comes to “performance-based layoffs” the extra hours you put in at the mines and how well you produced coal will get you a lot further than the number of times you shut down your machine because conditions became unsafe. Safety takes time, and time costs the company money. So when it comes to the appointment of a former mine company executive as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, it doesn’t take much to realize the consequences it will have for America’s coal miners.
Over 104,000 miners have been killed in this country’s coal mines since 1900. We’ve seen tragedy as recent as Upper Big Branch, Crandall Canyon, and Sago. All of these travesties could have been prevented had company executives put the safety of the worker ahead of production and financial gain.
The image featured at the top of this post shows the Hurricane Creek Miners Memorial a few miles outside of Hyden, Kentucky. For some, the memorial serves as a reminder of the 38 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who lost their lives on a cold December day in 1970. For others, it symbolizes one of the greatest flaws in our nation’s history of mine safety legislation.
The Hurricane Creek mine explosion occurred a year to the day following the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The act, a piece of legislation that could only be considered reactionary to the 1968 Farmington Disaster, was the most sweeping piece of mine safety legislation that had ever been put forth in our country. It mandated new safety equipment, new enforcement protocols, monetary fines for noncompliance, and it even began taking into account health issues to include black lung.
Yet despite its being passed, 260 miners died in our nation’s coal mines the following year—including the 38 men at Hurricane Creek.
Even though the act saw to it that laws and regulations were put into place, very little funding was given to the newly formed Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA). Without proper funding, the agency was woefully understaffed, lacking the necessary resources to inspect each mine and enforce the new laws. It was only after mine safety advocates, such as the United Mine Workers and widows of the fallen miners, raised hell about it, that more funding was put to the purpose. Even then, it was still not enough.
Seven years later, the Scotia disaster would lead to the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Yet again, funding issues plagued mine safety enforcement agencies. It wouldn’t be until 2007— 40 years later—that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would receive enough funding to hire the number of inspectors necessary to perform all the mine inspections mandated by law. That funding only came as a reaction to the Sago disaster in 2006 where rescue efforts were nationally televised.
Time and time again we see the reactionary nature of mine safety legislation and funding. Even today, companies and politicians work in concert to weaken mine safety laws. Kentucky has reduced the number of inspections required by their state mine safety agencies, and West Virginia has attempted to completely eliminate theirs. Trump’s nomination of Zatezalo and his subsequent confirmation by Senate Republicans, all work to prove that little has changed.
I fear for coal miners today, more than I have in years. Right now, there are thousands of miners desperately seeking work. Coal companies are aware of the abundant labor market and are undoubtedly taking advantage of it. I’m sure the companies are preaching safety as they always do, threatening that any miner caught taking shortcuts will be fired. Then they remind miners that any upcoming layoffs will be based upon individual performance.
If there was ever a more crucial time for mine safety agencies to step up for the miner and enforce the laws that are meant to protect them, it is now. I feel many federal and state inspectors know this and are trying, but they are becoming increasingly powerless as politicians continue to cut budgets and impair mine safety laws.