On Jan. 31, the head of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Joe Main, announced the next phase of the “Rules to Live By” training, a program with a catchy title that aims to reduce mining fatalities and injuries. The 14 targeted safety standards in the “Rules to Live By III: Preventing Common Mining Deaths” were chosen because violations related to each contributed to at least five deaths and five mine accidents between Jan. 1, 2000 and Dec. 31, 2010.
The third phase of the program also marks a shift toward increased scrutiny of surface mine safety with 11 of the 14 targeted standards directly related to surface mining operations, which are often thought of as safer than underground mines. Main said the need to shift the focus from deep mines to surface operations became clear in 2011 when five deaths occurred in just 41 days and emphasized that, although 2011 was the second safest year on record, two-thirds of the total 37 lives lost occured on coal, metal and nonmetal surface mines.
Of the 14 standards, eight are coal priority standards, including daily inspections of surface coal mines and plans for the safe control of all highwalls, pits and spoil banks, “which shall be consistent with prudent engineering design and will insure safe working conditions.”
An announcement made by MSHA on Tuesday describes the intent of Phase III:
Beginning April 1, MSHA will focus more attention on these 14 standards with enhanced enforcement efforts, increased scrutiny for related violations, and instructions to inspectors to more carefully evaluate gravity and negligence – consistent with the seriousness of the violation – when citing violations that cause or contribute to mining fatalities. MSHA inspectors will receive online training to promote consistency in enforcement activity across the agency.
Increased scrutiny of mine operator safety, effective regulation, inspection and enforcement can only be a good thing. When rules put in place to protect workers are seen as little more than threats to profits, they are ignored, and miners are taken from their families and loved ones by preventable deaths. MSHA should be commended on their efforts to stay up-to-date with the conditions that put workers at risk.
But Main’s announcement can also be read as a ironic reminder: Mountaintop removal puts entire communities at risk by imposing an economic, environmental, and public health burden on families. They have their own “Rules to Live By” that include clean air, water and economic and legal justice against a destructive industry encroaching on their homes. Most of these citizens have no way to defend themselves from the long list of negative impacts, conveniently considered “externalities” by the coal industry. And as peer-reviewed studies and mounting evidence show an increase in birth defects around these sites it’s becoming clearer than ever, citizens of Appalachia need stronger enforcement of their rules too.
Just like we need safe mines, we need safe communities. But we can’t have either when mountaintop removal is the mining method of choice.