Are mines as risky as potato salad?

Coal mines and potato salad? Not exactly equivalent danger. In my house, where the husband involved is first generation of his family not to have been in the mines (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and before that, Cornwall) we keep an eye on these things. The latest disaster brought to light (thanks, New York Times) an interesting reference that offers insight into the viewpoints of mine owners and managers who profess having safety a #1 priority.

The article references an Indiana Gazette‘s overview of the 35-year-old Mine Safety and Health Administration, which includes these paragraphs:

In 2007, the year after a series of fatal accidents that were attributed in part to the failures of seals designed to keep explosive methane gas from seeping between work areas in the mines, federal officials considered imposing a rule requiring mine owners to replace or retrofit all seals, to better protect the estimated 30,000 miners nationwide.

But at a hearing that year, Bill K. Caylor, then president of the Kentucky Coal Association, accused the government of reacting hysterically to the accidents.

“Did you know that 750 people die each year in the U.S. from eating bad or ruined potato salad?” he told federal regulators. “Do you think we could get some new laws put on the books to control these deaths?”

He urged regulators to ignore pleas from the widows of victims who were pressing them to mandate that new seals be installed in mines nationwide.

“The cost of installing the new approved seals will put a lot of smaller operators out of business,” he told regulators, urging them to require that the new seals only needed to be used when old ones were replaced.

When the final rule came out in 2008, the regulators sided with Caylor.

Not to paint all miners and the UMW as saints, or all mine owners and operators as hopeless bad guys, but that old Follow The Money adage seems to fit here. It often fits in climate change discussions whenever mountains and mining intersect, and it surely pops up a lot in safety stories. Yesterday’s Times article ends with these paragraphs:

Last Monday morning, a federal inspector visited the Upper Big Branch mine. He looked over its books, “discussed black lung and handed out stickers,” according to handwritten notes.

He made an “imminent danger” run in the mine, checked for dust collection and inspected the toilet, the notes say. He checked the conveyer belt and the roof, and took air readings in two locations that showed no methane.

The inspector then issued two citations, for an improperly insulated spliced electrical cable and for the lack of an updated map of escape routes in one section of the mine. Then he left.

That afternoon, the mine blew up.

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