United Nations Photo / Flickr Coal Mining in Brazil...
United Nations Photo / Flickr

Two days before the end of the year, Thurman Watts died when the bulldozer he was operating tipped from the highwall at a coal mine in West Virginia and plunged over 150 feet. Watt’s death at the very end of the year made him the fifteenth coal miner to die on the job in 2017.

From 2010 on, coal mining deaths moved steadily downward. In fact, that downward slope goes all the way back to the establishment of the Bureau of Mines in 1910, when over 2,800 miners died in a single year. But that trend made an abrupt reversal in 2017.

A total of 15 miners died on the job in 2017, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data show, compared with eight in 2016.

Mining deaths almost doubled in 2017, while mining employment barely budged—despite astounding claims from the administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 2017 going out with the number of mining jobs within two percent of where they started. Employment barely budged. It was deaths that really made gains over the year. 

And why would that be?

The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who faced harsh criticism over his company’s safety record, to lead the federal government’s mine safety agency.

Donald Trump wants to take credit for another year of safe travel by the airline industry … fine. But he should also take credit for this.

Trump’s controversial MSHA pick was voted in by Republicans in November. For most of the year, the chair at the head of MSHA sat empty, while Trump and his team crippled the ability of federal inspectors to do their jobs, and tried to eliminate protections for a killer that comes for miners when they’re back at home—black lung.

President Donald Trump’s mining regulators are reconsidering regulations meant to protect underground miners from breathing coal and rock dust – the cause of black lung – and diesel exhaust, which can cause cancer. …

Some “requirements that could be streamlined or replaced in frequency” involve coal and rock dust. …

The Trump administration has said that many federal regulations, including pollution restrictions, have restricted the coal industry and other aspects of the economy.

The statistics for those miners who die from black lung don’t get added to the annual deaths on the job … but they should.

Mine safety regulations have proven singularly effective. When the first regulations were created, about one in 250 miners died on the job. By 1940, it was still one in 288. That’s when federal mine inspectors gained the right to enter mines on demand and ensure that safety regulations were followed. With inspections, deaths dropped to one in 588 by 1960, and after the Mine Safety Act went into place, miner deaths were down to one in 1,900 by 1980. With MSHA and new regulations for mine safety, the number were one in 3,600 by 2000. With the MINER Act in place, the odds had improved astonishingly to one in 8,500 in 2015.

In 2016, less than one in 10,000 miners died on the job. This year, it’s back to one in 6,800. And if Trump’s team has anything to say about it, that won’t be the end of the increase. When Trump issued his two-for-one regulation cut promise, one particular agency really took it to heart.

To comply with that two-for-one order, most parts of the federal government, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, filed a formal notice with the Federal Register, the official journal of the federal government, which lists new and proposed rule changes.

But one agency eyed for significant regulatory overhaul under Trump, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, decided to forgo taking suggestions there.

Instead, the MSHA posted an email address on its website to solicit suggestions for rules to cut.

What rules got singled out? Who’s to say. MSHA didn’t list the results of this request in the Federal Register.

Phil Smith, director of communications and governmental affairs at the United Mine Workers of America, said of the push to eliminate existing mine safety rules, “It’s very troubling, because there isn’t a single mine safety health regulation that wasn’t promulgated without death or injury to a miner.”

It’s very easy to take the dates on the list of safety improvements above and map them directly to miner deaths. No one sat back in Washington and said “you know what would be a fun regulation,” they responded directly to life threatening situations in the mines. By targeting MSHA, Donald Trump is putting a bullseye on miners.

One other note: It would actually be easier to draw the line through recent years except for one event that accounted for 29 of the 48 coal mining deaths in 2010—the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. That mine was run by Don Blankenship. Blankenship got sentenced to just one year in prison for his role in not just sending these men into an unsafe mine, but directly ordering them to ignore safety regulations to increase production. This was the note Blankship sent mine foremen.

“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e.—build [ventilation] overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal,” he wrote.

All those other things Blankenship was talking about—from the ventilation to the construction—were about safety. 

If Blankenship’s name sounds familiar, you might also know him as the man who took a West Virginia Supreme Court Judge to Monte Carlo and plied him with booze and hookers—while Blankenship had a case before the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Or maybe it was the case where, after it was revealed that runoff from one of his own mines was polluting the local groundwater, Blankenship had a special pipeline constructed to bring water from a different town exclusively to his home. Without telling his neighbors.

Or maybe it was the time when Blankenship threatened to shoot a reporter for taking pictures of him. Before walking across a public parking lot to grab the camera and break it—then to choke the reporter. 

Or maybe … you get the idea.

And oh yeah, that’s this Don Blankenship.

On Wednesday West Virginia station WCHS reported that the former Massey Energy CEO, fresh off a one-year stint in a federal prison for conspiring to commit mine-safety violations in the run-up to the deadliest mining disaster in decades, has filed paperwork to run in next year’s Republican Senate primary. 

In the age of Trump … why not?

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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