Friday, January 06, 2006

Making an Ass of Myself, Probably

This is a post about mining. I'm not going to go on here about how badly I feel for those families who lost men in the recent Sago Mine incident- I would hope that goes without saying. But I would like to give you a little different perspective that you will not find in the MSM.
After reading this Washington Compost article, you would think Sago Mine was a hot bed for negligent safety practices. The article cites 273 safety violations in the past two years, 46 of them recent, with 18 of them "significant and substantial". Sounds pretty awful, doesn't it?
MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is the mining industry's OSHA. MSHA is a huge pain in the ass, and I mean that it in a complimentary way. Several times a year, MSHA inspectors will converge on our little slice of Bedrock here for regular safety inspections. It is rare beyond belief that ANY mine will go through an inspection and not receive any citations for bad safety practices. It may be something as seemingly trivial as a cracked flourescent light cover, but I promise you, it will be something. These inspectors are for the most part trying to make what is inherently a very dangerous operation as safe as possible.
I checked on MSHA's data retrieval page to see what the average number of citations is for both open pit and underground limestone mines in Illinois. Four or five per regular safety inspection seems to be the norm. I also checked the Sago Mine's records, which was correct with 46 citations for their last inspections, and then checked several underground coal mines in Illinois. The numbers, per inspection, were almost identical.
Now here is where that big 273 violations number is misleading. That figure covers a two year period. So say, for example, that cummulative figure includes 45 violations from 2004. Once a company is issued a citation, it has X amount of time to fix the problem, because there WILL be a follow up visit. The company has the option to appeal the citation and any subsequent fine, but there is NO negotiation whatsoever on fixing the specific problem. You fix it, or you're shut down, simple as that. And because mining is a progressive process, fixing a problem in one area will not preclude from happening again in another area as new ledges are developed.
I don't want to sound like I'm giving anyone a pass here on responsibilty for the incident. The mine was recently sold to International Coal Group, and I'm not familiar with their safety record. They may have inherited a slew of problems. What I question is the implication that any company would willfully and knowingly endanger employees that are already working in hazardous conditions.
Mining is a dangerous business. Taking the earth, digging into it, blasting it apart, tunneling through it- there is no way this is ever going to be a safe or accident-free environment. It is not a matter of IF there's going to be an accident, but WHEN. All the caution on the world cannot prevent it from happening when you are making the earth do things is does not want to naturally.
If I sound like a corporate shill, I'm sorry- nothing could be farther from the truth. But I'm willing to wait before I pass judgement and let the facts sort themselves out, and in the meantime, pray for those who lost loved ones.

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