Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Two tragedies, two responses

I guess it all depends on what the investigation is likely to reveal.

The White House on Wednesday promised a full investigation of the West Virginia coal mine disaster that killed 12 people, and President Bush said the entire nation mourns the loss.

Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the investigation will "evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including compliance with all federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."
Contrast this sensible, timely response by White House with the same White House's reponse to the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina:

Bush said he will personally lead an investigation into what went wrong with the early federal response to Katrina.

After their meeting with the president, congressional leaders said they would conduct a bipartisan investigation.

Reid also called for a probe by an independent commission "comparable to the 9/11 Commission," which looked into why the federal government wasn't able to stop the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.

Bush said that while critics want "to play a blame game," he and his administration have "got to solve problems. ... There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong. What I'm interested in is helping save lives."
How do you suppose Bush's investigation is going? After all, it has been months since the hurricane struck and months since Bush has said the word Katrina in public.

Sounding an awful lot like post-Katrina Bush and not post-Sago-mine-tragedy Bush, but wisely avoiding the phrase "blame game," is Ben Hatfield, CEO of International Coal, which owns the Sago mine:

When asked about the facility's safety record at a news conference yesterday, Ben Hatfield, International Coal's chief executive officer, said the Ashland, Kentucky-based company has improved safety conditions since acquiring the mine last year.

"We have no interest of getting into the finger-pointing of who is responsible for what, and what went wrong a year ago," Hatfield said. "This is a mine that operated for some significant time before my company even had involvement with it; so much of the bad history that you're talking about was beyond our reach and ability to control."
What Ben is referring to is the fact that federal authorities issued 21 citations last year for a build-up of combustible materials at the mine, and 208 federal safety violations overall last year, up from 68 in 2004.

I hold out little hope that this investigation will save lives in the future, given the administration's relationship with energy producers and it's record of investigating environmental accidents.

(C)onsider the case of Tony Oppegard and Jack Spadaro, members of a team of federal geodesic engineers selected to investigate the collapse of barriers that held back a coal slurry pond in Kentucky containing toxic wastes from mountaintop strip-mining. The 300-million-gallon spill was the largest in American history and, according to the EPA, the greatest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States. Black lava-like toxic sludge containing sixty poisonous chemicals choked and sterilized up to 100 miles of rivers and creeks and poisoned the drinking water in seventeen communities. Unlike in other slurry disasters, no one died, but hundreds of residents were sickened by contact with contaminated water.

The investigation had broad implications for the viability of mountaintop mining, which involves literally lopping off mountaintops to get access to the underlying coal. It is a process beloved by coal barons because it practically dispenses with the need for human labor and thus increases industry profits. Spadaro, the nation's leading expert on slurry spills, recalls, "We were geotechnical engineers determined to find the truth. We simply wanted to get to the heart of the matter -- find out what happened and why, and to prevent it from happening again. But all that was thwarted at the top of the agency by Bush appointees who obstructed professionals trying to do their jobs."


Oppegard, the leader of the federal team, was fired on the day Bush was inaugurated in 2001. All eight members of the team except Spadaro signed off on a whitewashed investigation report. Spadaro, like the others, was harassed but flat-out refused to sign. In April of 2001 Spadaro resigned from the team and filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Labor Department. Last June 4 he was placed on administrative leave -- a prelude to getting fired.

Bush Administration officials accuse Spadaro of "abusing his authority" for allowing a handicapped instructor to have free room and board at a training academy he oversees, an arrangement approved by his superiors. An internal report vindicated Spadaro's criticisms of the investigation, but the Administration is still going after his job. "I've been regulating mining since 1966," Spadaro told me. "This is the most lawless administration I've encountered. They have no regard for protecting miners or the people in mining communities. They are without scruples."
We pray for the victims of this tragedy, and for their loved ones.

UPDATE: A closer look at all those pesky citations.

MSHA cited Sago 208 times for safety violations in 2005, but (Joe Pavlovich, former director of MSHA District 7 in Kentucky) said that's less relevant than the fact that 15 of the citations required the company to
close parts of the mine or shut down equipment.

Mine inspectors usually allow companies to keep mining while they correct safety violations and only issue closure orders when they see "a high degree of negligence," he said. Companies typically aren't forced to close a section of a mine unless the companies have ignored previous citations for the same violation, he said.

"To me, that's pretty serious," Pavlovich said of Sago's record. "That's a pretty large number."

Gene Kitts, vice president of mining services for International Coal Group, has said his company shouldn't be held accountable for Sago's poor safety record because it just took control of the mine in November. Two of the closure orders were issued since November.


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