January 2, 2008

Two Years after Sago, AP Reporter Claims Non-Existent ‘Lag’ in Safety

An item at the Associated Press’s “Today in History” for January 2 reads:

In 2006, a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, claimed the lives of 12 miners, but one miner, Randal McCloy Jr., was eventually rescued.

What is conveniently forgotten by most is that Old Media, particularly the New York Times, and quite a few chronic sufferers of Bush Derangement Syndrome (but I repeat myself), attempted to hijack the tragedy before the wakes for the dead miners were even held. They wanted to pin the catastrophe, totally without foundation, on the idea that the administration had created the conditions for the tragedy by starving the budget of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and by putting industry cronies who were deliberately lax in safety enforcement in charge.

The Times even tried to tie the tragedy to a natural disaster that had occurred just a few months earlier:

Just as Hurricane Katrina forced Americans to look at the face of lingering poverty and racism, this mining tragedy should focus us all on another forgotten, mistreated corner of society. The Sago mine disaster is far more than a story of cruel miscommunication. The dozen dead miners deserve to be memorialized with fresh scrutiny of the state of mine safety regulation and a resurrection of political leadership willing to look beyond Big Coal to the interests of those who risk their lives in the mines.

The claims of negligence and pervasive deteriorating safety conditions were definitively debunked at these posts:

In short, yours truly and Bevan found that coal-mine deaths and injuries had been declining significantly during the previous four years; inspection hours had shown no indications of a safety letup; and the budget for MHSA had not been slashed.

So where is coal-mine safety, and mine safety in general, two years later?

Unfortunately, if you read the report published yesterday by the Associated Press’s Tim Huber, you would think that nothing meaningful has happened:

Mine Safety Lags 2 Years After Explosion

Two years after an explosion tore apart the Sago Mine and killed 12 men, prompting Congress to pass legislation strengthening mine safety standards, many of those standards have yet to be implemented.

Congress overhauled mine safety rules after the January 2006 blast at the Upshur County mine. There were two other high-profile fatal mine accidents that year, and an August collapse in Utah killed nine miners.

But the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has yet to implement some of the standards established by the laws, and the United Mine Workers union, which represents some of the 42,000 miners who work in the nation’s 670 underground coal mines, blames the agency and mine owners for the delays.

“MSHA, quite frankly, for some time now, since about 2001, has not been the agency that it was mandated to be by Congress to protect the coal miners in this country,” union president Cecil Roberts said. “MSHA, I think, has gone backwards.

Funny how “since 2001″ comes up so frequently, isn’t it?

I’m not going to sit here and claim that MSHA has been perfect, but since the gauntlet has been laid down, and Tim Huber put the quote into his report, let’s look at “since 2001,” shall we?

The real answers about trends in mine safety can be found by doing something Huber and other Old Media reporters appear congenitally disinclined to do, even after after so many years of repeated debunkings: look at readily available real results, cite them, and provide historical context.

The facts show that mine safety has continued to improve. Some of the improvement was undoubtedly spurred by the Sago tragedy. But just as surely, the better results are indications to a non-deranged observer, absent contrary information that Tim Huber certainly didn’t cite, that MSHA officials and the vast majority of the companies they inspect are consciously and continuously working to improve their safety efforts.

The most obvious indicator of improved safety is that after a rough 2006 that included Sago, total mining deaths in 2007 returned to about the levels of 2002-2005, especially after considering the 17% increase in coal industry employment since 2003 (2007 data is through December 18; I believe that most mines shut down between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day):


(The 2007 coal mining death total is here. The 2007 source for “Metal/Nonmetal” [i.e., all other mining] is here. Prior year coal deaths are here; prior year Metal/Nonmetal deaths are here. There are unaccounted-for one death differences in 2000 and 2005.)

While the past two years have resulted in more coal-mine deaths than anyone would have liked, deaths during 2002-2007 (i.e., “since 2001″), the period during which the Bush Administration can be said to have had full budgetary responsibility for and control of the MSHA, are down 12% compared to the period 1996-2001. 2007′s 32 deaths would be very near the low end of the 1996-2001 results. Deaths in metal/nommetal mines (i.e., other than coal) are down 36% using the same comparative periods, while overall deaths from all mining are down 26%. Only 2006 had a higher number of total mining deaths (by one) than any year from 1996-2001.

Significant improvements in injury-related results can be seen by referring to the other info at MSHA.

Relating to Coal


Non-Fatal Days Lost (NFDL) decreased every year from 2002 through 2006 (latest data available), and fell over 21% from 2001. No Days Lost (NDL) injuries also fell slightly from 2001′s result. This occurred despite the fact that hours worked are up about 12% since 2001. The incidence rate for NFDLs and NDLs are both at alltime lows.

Relating to Metal/Nonmetal


NFDLs are down over 17%, and also show a consistent downward trend. The incidence rates for Metal/Nonmetal mining fatalities (not shown), NFDLs, and NDLs are at alltime lows.

This page on “Mine Safety and Health At a Glance” for coal shows that there have been consistent reductions in the overall injury rate during the past 10 years (1996-2006), and no noticeable letup in inspection efforts or citation issuance –


The “At a Glance” page also provides further context for the fatality statistics: It shows the over 17% increase in employment in the coal industry from 2003 to 2006 noted earlier. Coal fatalities per hour worked in 2007 will more than likely be within the range of what was achieved in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

It must have been humiliating for the New York Times, other Old Media outlets, and the far-left blogs to have to back off on their Sago-related Bush Derangement two years ago when they thought they had another Katrina-like episode to exploit. They could have spared themselves from the mood swings by doing what a couple of lowly bloggers did — namely, about 10 minutes of research.

Tim Huber has made the same mistake. He appears not to understand that safety isn’t measured in how many pages of regulations have been issued and how many seminars have been held. Otherwise, how could he have written a report citing no statistics — none — beyond citation-related information provided by MSHA’s eponymously-named Director Richard Stickler? (I’m not disputing the importance of training, as long as it’s done well and properly designed to achieve its desired end). Sorry, Tim — safety is measured in on-the-job results. The results show that safety is not “lagging,” but instead continues to improve.

Tim Huber’s reporting is just as wrong now as that of the New York Times and others two years ago.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


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