In its drive to foster a more cooperative relationship with mining companies, the Bush administration has decreased major fines for safety violations since 2001, and in nearly half the cases, it has not collected the fines, according to a data analysis by The New York Times.The graphics show that the number of violations given the maximum fine dropped upon President Bush's inauguration, and that the number of fines actually collected dropped precipitously in the subsequent years.
A spokesman for the Mining Health and Safety Administration made the odd claim that "Safety is definitely improving."
The effects of poor safety oversight aren't instant, so a constant rate of fatalities, especially in light of increased mechanization, isn't necessarily a sign that safety is getting better. The incidents at Sago and elsewhere suggest that the chickens are coming home to roost.
"Most fines are so small that they are seen not as deterrents but as the cost of doing business," said Wes Addington, a lawyer with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., which handles mine safety cases. Using federal records, Mr. Addington released a study in January indicating that since 1995 nearly a third of the active underground mines in Kentucky had failed to pay their fines.Coal may, as Montana's Governor Schweitzer likes to claim, be the future of energy independence. But we shouldn't trade the lives of our miners for that coal. Finding a way to work with industry is wise, but assessing $60 fines, and failing to collect them, won't save miners' lives.
"Operators know that it's cheaper to pay the fine than to fix the problem," Mr. Addington said. "But they also know the cheapest of all routes is to not pay at all. It's pretty galling."