Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Sago Mining tragedy, No Man's Land, and Good Government

Publius at Legal Fiction makes the point that whatever went wrong at Sago, resulting in 12 dead miners and one near death, government action has undoubtedly made mines safer over the years. The miners had hardhats, they had lights, standards for air quality, standards for mine support safety, and emergency breathing devices. There are, or should be, inspectors ensuring that mines are operated in a way that keeps workers safe.

This is a change from the pre-union, pre-New Deal, days. Look at classic songs of the miners, like the Carter Family's Coal Miner's Blues:

These blues are so blue, they are the coal black blues.
These blues are so blue, they are the coal black blues.
For my place will cave in, and my life I will lose.

Or Merle Travis's Deep as a Dungeon:

The midnight, the morning, or the middle of day,
Is the same to the miner who labors away.
Where the demons of death often come by surprise,
One fall of the slate and you're buried alive.

Or Blind Alfred Reed's account of a 1907 explosion in a West Virginia mine:

One bright morning, the miner just about to leave,
Heard his dear child screaming in all fright.
He went to her bed, then she looked up and said:
"I have had such a dream, turn on the light."

"Daddy, please don't go down in that hole today,
For my dreams do come true some time, you know.
Oh, don't leave me, daddy, please don't go away,
Something bad sure will happen, do not go."

"Oh, I dreamed that the mines were burning out with fire,
Every man was fighting for his life.
And some had companions and they prayed out loud,
'Oh God, please protect my darling wife,'"

Then her daddy bent down and kissed her dear sweet face,
Turned again to travel on his way,
But she threw her small arms around her daddy's neck,
She kissed him again, and he heard her say:

Then the miner was touched, and said he would not go;
"Hush, my child, I'm with you, do not cry."
There came an explosion and two-hundred men
Were shut in the mines and left to die.

And there's always Mrs. Clara Sullivan's letter, adapted by Malvina Reynolds:

I'm twenty-six years, a miner's wife,
There's nothing harder than a miner's life.
But there's no better man than a mining man,
You couldn't find better in all this land.
The deal they get is a rotten deal,
Mountain greens and gravy meal,
In Perry County.

We live in shacks that the rain comes in,
While the operators live high as sin,
Ride Cadillac cars, and drink like a fool,
While our kids lack clothes to go to school.
Sheriff Combs, he has it fine;
He runs the law and owns a mine
In Perry County.

I believe, the truth will out some day
That we're fighting for jobs at decent pay.
Why, after work, my man comes in,
With his wet clothes frozen to his skin.
Diggin' coals, so the world can run
And operators can have their fun
In Perry County.

All of which is why it's important to remember that

President Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years while penalties for OSHA or MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received last year by the Sago mine was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. At that rate, it's hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything. And the administration has shut down any new worker protection standards in OSHA and MSHA.

Rescinding standards that would require multiple escapeways, increasing tolerable levels of coal dust (the likely fuel for the explosion), and other loosened standards made the Sago mine (and every other mine) less safe. It moved us closer to the days when people like my grandfather were fighting for basic worker safety (he was in the typographers' union). This is Bob Dole's famed "Bridge to Yesterday."

Industry will not, all on its own, make these mines safer. That's what government is for, and everyone does take that for granted. Just as government programs were what kept New Orleans above water literally, and what kept the massive low-income population there above water figuratively, government programs protect all of us all the time. When those protections fail, the results are often catastrophic.

On a positive note (and a slightly different topic), the Senate passed a rider to a funding bill which forbids political litmus tests for members of government advisory panels and forbids the Department of Health and Human Services from lying to the public. This bill would curb some of the abuses Chris Mooney pointed out in RWoS.

What's important to note is that there's no inherent reason for mine safety or accurate health information to be partisan issues, any more than the privacy and sanctity of an individual's phone calls and emails should be a partisan affair. The government should lie about health, and should choose its advisors on their professional merits, not their political merits. Protecting workers means protecting voters and Americans, as does protecting phone calls and emails.

I've said before, this administration isn't against big government, it's against good government. Let's argue about the best way to make mines safer, not about how to keep them from being less safe. Let's argue about how to get the most accurate information on health matters out quickly, rather than arguing about how to keep bald-faced lies out of government releases. Let's figure out how to rebuild No Man's Land, rather than building bridges to nowhere.

At last, some battles are being won, but too few, and too far between.