January 6, 2006

The NY Times and The AFL-CIO
Futilely Attempt to Exploit the Sago 12

Overview: the New York Times and the AFL-CIO objects to reduced headcount at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the modest reduction in its fiscal 2006 budget. But detailed information shows that there has been no letup in the coal mine inspection effort during The Bush Administration, while the mines themselves have become significantly safer. The investigation of the Sago 12 tragedy needs to be thorough and complete so that the record of improvement can resume.

The New York Times oh-so-predictable follow-up editorial today on The Sago 12 tragedy pulls out the “spending equals caring” argument, and moans about a modest reduction at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA):

But in accounting for the deaths, inspectors should look as well into the budget cutbacks and staff attrition that have marked the Bush administration’s management of its own ranks in the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The latest budget imposes a $4.9 million cut for the safety agency, according to Congressional critics who estimate that the agency has suffered a reduction of 170 positions in the past five years.

The AFL-CIO (scroll down to near the end of the page) complains that the MSHA has fewer employees:

Since taking office in 2001, the Bush administration has reduced MSHA staff by 170 positions, from 2,357 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) in FY 2001 to 2,187 FTEs proposed for FY 2006.

Aw Geez, this is too easy…. though 2005 figures aren’t available, it’s still ridiculously easy to take down The Times’ complaint about money and The AFL-CIO’s complaint about headcount:


This info was obtained from the “Coal Mine Safety and Health” section of the MSHA’s “Mine Safety and Health at a Glance” page. The MSHA’s budget includes money for other types of mining, but the issue is whether there has been any letup in the coal mine inspection effort.


  • In terms of dollars, EU Rota showed yesterday, in anticipation of The Times’ argument, that spending has trended upward during The Bush Administration, from about $250 million in fiscal 2002 (the first budget the administration was responsible for) to about $285 million in fiscal 2005, before being reduced to 2006′s planned amount of roughly $280 million. Even with the 2006 reduction, the increase from 2002 is 12% in 4 years, which is about equal to inflation during that time.
  • The 170-person drop in headcount The AFL-CIO is complaining about is a reduction of 7.2% over a 5-year period.
  • But there were 6.4% fewer coal mines in 2004 than there were in 2001, and there are probably fewer now.
  • There were 5.2% fewer coal miners in 2004 than in 2001.
  • The coal mine fatality rate per 200,000 hours worked went down 32% from 2001 to 2004 (the 2005 figure will be down roughly 40%). Similar reductions in injury levels were shown by Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics yesterday.
  • The number of inspection hours at each mine represents 27-28 person-days per year, and has not meaningfully changed since 2001.

Based on their track record, there’s no legitimate reason to believe that MSHA was letting up on its inspection efforts heading into 2006. I believe it’s much more likely that they are taking advantage of improved technology to reduce the number of support staff required in Washington while maintaining their consistent onsite presence.

Overall, I would characterize MSHA’s performance in coal mine safety as a record of continuous improvement (with, of course, the general cooperation of coal mine operators and employees). This is what happens when people who know how to run businesses take the reins of government agencies: They streamline operations while at the same time improving results, all while working together with, instead of antagonizing, the companies they monitor.

Nothing meaningful is accomplished when The Times whines about a modest spending reduction, or when Big Labor objects to gradually shedding workers who aren’t needed, except planting seeds of resentment and bitterness where they don’t belong (but that is the point, isn’t it?). It’s supposed to be all about results, not money.

As I said in the previous post, the tragedy of the Sago 12 needs to be fully investigated, as the President has said it will be. If company officials allowed unsafe conditions to persist despite warnings, they should be punished. If any inspectors let up in their due diligence, they should be severely disciplined, fired, and perhaps even prosecuted.

In the meantime, The Times and the AFL-CIO are embarrassing themselves with their distortions (and worse) of the truth. They should stop trying to exploit the tragedy, and hold their fire until more is known.



  1. You might want to look at this for additional information.

    Working for Change-Sirota

    Comment by Chip — January 6, 2006 @ 7:12 pm

  2. Zheesh — the stats show that mine safety didn’t suffer.

    Given the 2002 event, if safety was visibly and comprehensively suffering and wasn’t addressed, the consequences of said alleged “negligence” would have been felt before January 2006. As it was, results improved continuously during the intervening three years, giving one the impression that whatever problems existed were being addressed. The idea, given the statistical improvements, that “Bush knew full well that mine safety was suffering – and now we know he didn’t do anything about it” isn’t credible in the least. The more credible idea is that MSHA (and the coal companies) responded to the concerns raised in the 2002 tragedy and improved safety during each of the next three years. I see the Word doc referred to at Sirota’s post as partisan blather. Don’t talk to me about funding and manpower (which per mine didn’t suffer), talk to me about effectiveness.

    The consistency of onsite inspection hours and the reduced fatalities until this week speak for themselves.

    I’m also making a mental note to check in the fall to see where the total fatality numbers are. I’d say it’s still 50-50 that 2006 will have a lower total than 2005, largely because of human nature.

    That isn’t to say they aren’t or weren’t problem children (mines) that maybe should have had more attention, but that’s not the nature of the 2002 charge, which was that problems were pervasive because MSHA wasn’t “fully funded” ( a convenient and apparently undefined term).

    So I’m not buying what Sirota’s selling.

    Comment by TBlumer — January 6, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

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