JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 8, 2010
Yesterday, I flagged an embryonic attempt by conservatives -- in this case, Chris Stirewalt of the Washington Examiner -- to defend right-wing coal mine operator Don Blankenship, one of whose mines recently exploded and killed two dozen workers. Stirewalt scoffs at the possibility that Blankenship ignored safety standards:
We don’t know what caused the explosion – an electric arc, a spark from metal on metal, etc. – but the real question will be how methane levels got so high.
The coverage of the disaster hasn’t focused on the handful of actual warning signs but instead on the volume of complaints from federal regulators. TV newscasters and reporters repeat over and over again that the mine had received “thousands” of citations or paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Diane Sawyer has been the most over the top, but the theme of most of the reporting has been that this is the Toyota Prius of coal moans – a runaway safety problem overlooked by federal investigators. It all forgets that all mines are being constantly written up and fined. It’s a hovering regulatory presence that works more like a health code inspection at restaurants than consumer product safety. Small problems get written up and corrected. Any big problems or an accumulation of un-remedied small ones get you shut down.
Actually, an accumulation of even significant problems does not get you shut down. The company can just fight the citations. Here's an excellent, thorough report from the Associated Press:
The company that runs the West Virginia mine where an explosion killed at least 25 workers frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively contesting safety violations, including recent problems with the ventilation system that clears away combustible methane gas.
Bombarding federal regulators with appeals is an increasingly common industry tactic since the 2006 Sago mine disaster that killed 12 led to stiffer fines and new enforcement to punish the worst offenders, according to an Associated Press review of records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
While the new rules aimed to make the nation's mines safer, companies responded with challenges that have backlogged MSHA with claims that go unpaid and unresolved for years. Agency officials say the maneuvers block their ability to punish repeat violators, and worker advocates fear more tragedies.
As more facts come out, Blankenship is going to be a very difficult figure for conservatives to defend.