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   Vol. 70/No. 5           February 6, 2006  
Safety violations rampant in western coal mines
PRICE, Utah—The killing of 12 men after the January 2 Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia has sparked increased attention to safety in other coal-producing regions. The Salt Lake Tribune ran a front-page article January 15 headlined “Violations Run Deep in Utah’s Coal Mines.” Using federal mining data, the article points out that four Utah mines have violated federal regulations more often than the one at Sago, “and two of those mines have dozens more ‘significant and substantial’ violations.”

Miners in Utah produced 21 million tons of coal in 2005, ranking the state 15th in the country. Since 1993, 16 miners have died on the job in Utah, the sixth-highest figure among the 50 states.

The last two years Utah mines were cited for 2,600 violations, 936 of which were “significant and substantial,” and the coal bosses were fined $300,000—a bit more than $100 per violation. “It’s almost a joke,” Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) who works out of the union’s District 22 office here, told the Tribune. “Our coal is at such a primo throughout the country that [operators say], ‘If I can mine this stuff, violate the law and still make a huge profit, why not just do it?’ We are a dynamite keg waiting to blow up.”

A chart the Tribune published with the article detailed the violations mine by mine. It shows that Dugout Canyon, owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal, the second-largest coal producer in the country, was cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for 356 violations in 2004-05, 155 of which were classified “significant and substantial.” The Sago Mine was cited 276 times in total, 120 of which were significant.

The Arch Coal bosses own two other Utah mines, SUFCO and Skyline. They were fined less than $100,000 for 703 safety violations at their three mines over the two-year period. This hardly makes a dent in the $113 million in profits the company made off nearly $2 billion in revenue for 2004 alone.  
Safe Colorado mines?
“Are Colo. mines safe or lucky?” asks the headline of a January 9 Denver Post article. While stating that “Colorado’s mines have been safer than the national average for several years when measured in terms of injuries,” the article notes: “Three Colorado mines each received more citations in 2004 and 2005 than the Sago Mine.”

“There has been a reversal of safety,” Carol Miller, a member of UMWA Local 1984 in Rangley, Colorado, told the Militant January 24. “In Colorado, during the Thanksgiving holiday, the McClane mine near Grand Junction blew apart and the papers didn’t write anything about this. Right now, the West Elk mine near Paonia is on fire.”

MSHA cited West Elk, also owned by Arch, for 629 violations. Production at the mine has been shut down since November 2005 because of a fire that continues to burn.

“We have a union where I work,” Miller continued. “The fire bosses are members of the UMWA. When we have a safety issue, it’s written in fire-boss books and the union and the company have to sign off after the problem is taken care of.”

“Certainly accidents happen in mines organized by the UMWA, but safety is a different matter in union mines,” Phil Smith, the UMWA’s communications director, told the Militant. “Miners in union mines have safety committees. When there is a violation, a union safety committee can work to do something about it, without the individual worker getting victimized. In a nonunion mine, if a miner says something about a safety violation, the boss says: ‘If you don’t like the situation, we’ll find someone who does.’”  
MSHA ‘drug abuse’ diversion
Government agencies compound the problem. Rather than rigorously enforcing safety standards broken by the bosses, MSHA began a series of hearings in October 2005 that target “drug and alcohol abuse by miners” as the source of safety problems. A Kentucky state senator recently announced plans for a bill requiring mandatory drug-testing of miners in that state.

The fruits of this approach were apparent when MSHA inspector Pat Boyack addressed a January 12 company-sponsored “safety meeting” at a Price-area mine. According to a worker who asked to remain anonymous because he could be fired for speaking out, Boyack claimed to have been informed that miners there were using illegal drugs underground.

Urging miners to come forward and reveal the alleged culprits, he said workers could do one of two things: anonymously call MSHA, or take matters into their own hands with an “ax handle.” The miner said that Boyack, while referring to the Sago disaster, made a slur against miners in West Virginia, asserting that 80 percent of applicants for mining jobs there fail the drug-screening test and that companies have to relax their policies in order to meet labor demand.
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