Death in the Mines

With more casualties to be counted, the Sunshine Silver Mine disaster at Kellogg, Idaho is already the country’s second worst non-coal mine catastrophe in this century. The fire which swept through this silver mine — the largest in the US — and entombed anywhere from 50 to 90 men is under investigation by the US Bureau of Mines, the United Steel Workers and the Sunshine Mining Company.
But an assessment of government, industry and union involvement in the safety of hard-rock miners reveals that the miners and their families are being deceived into thinking that safeguards and protections exist under the law. The federal metal and nonmetallic mine safety act, passed by Congress in 1966, is a fraud.

In the first place, the act provides no penalties whatsoever for violating any mine safety standards — the first of which did not go into effect until July 1970. The Department of Interior, which is supposed to administer the act, is given no subpoena power against the mining companies. But the Department is required to heed the proposals regarding suggested standards of advisory committees dominated by industry representatives and their supporters. Finally, the act is specifically excluded from the Administrative Procedure Act which gives rights to the public that the mining lobby did not favor.

The only sanction which the government can impose is to issue a withdrawal order to temporarily close part or the whole of a mine. Most of the law is devoted to giving mine companies rights of appeal and re-appeal from any such orders. But the fact is that such orders are almost never issued. Because they are viewed as so drastic and procedurally cumbersome in nature, they are a clumsy and late means of obtaining compliance with standards.

According to the latest Bureau of Mines data, between July 31, 1970 and December 31, 1970, it conducted 1,492 inspections around the country and uncovered 15,958 violations of mandatory standards (averaging 10.7 violations per inspection). This was the total even though inspectors give advance notice of their coming to the mines. Only six withdrawal orders were issued in that period.

The United Steelworkers, which is now denouncing the weak law and its anemic enforcement, was not exerting much of its power when the mining industry virtually wrote the 1966 act. Since then, the USW has neither hired the experts nor maintained a watchdog role over the Bureau of Mines and the industry to advance the protection of its rank and file miners.

What the investigators are finding out at the Sunshine Mine are the predictable consequences of a no-law law surrounded by government abdication and union apathy on one side and powerful industry pressure on the other side. There was no oxygen equipment in the key areas of this underground mine, and no carbon monoxide monitoring system, nor were there enough self-rescue devices, nor regular fire drills or posted emergency escape routes for the miners to know and use. The company’s answer to these charges is that the law does not require these safeguards. State mine inspections conducted a few months ago located numerous violations such as oily rags in the hoist rooms, absence of warning signs and other dangerous conditions. The company shrugged these off as minor and temporary infractions which were later corrected.

The Congress responded to the Farmington, West Virginia mine tragedy, which took 78 miners’ lives in November, 1968, by passing a much stronger coal safety act. It is imperative that there be Congressional hearings and comprehensive amendments to the 1966 metal and nonmetallic act which give the miners as well as the government the tools to compel enforcement.

One penalty for safety violations by companies, which the amended law should authorize, is to dispatch some of the top executives of the mining corporation to spend a few weeks working side by side with the miners who are their employees. These executives will better realize how horrible underground mining is as an occupation without additonal hazards or disasters that could have been prevented by a more conscious regard for the miners’ safety and health.

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