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Published: Wednesday, 3/8/2006

Mine safety lax

DEEP digging by the New York Times uncovered that officials in the government's mine safety enforcement division have gone easy on coal mining corporations when it comes to safety violations.

The few big fines levied were often negotiated down at special meetings between mine bosses and safety officials. Even then, almost half the fines owed in the past three years were never collected. Emergency safety regulations that were proposed after a series of January tragedies in West Virginia coal pits are now hung up in a slow-moving committee.

It's true that trying to make a mile-deep cave a safe workplace is expensive. Safety costs money and eats profits.

President Bush and mine owners have a similar high regard for company profits, so a cozy, cooperative relationship blossomed in the past few years between regulators at the Mine Safety and Health Administration and mine executives.

Senate hearings last week on Capitol Hill sorted through the 2004 safety record at Sago Mine in West Virginia. The mine was cited 273 times, but none of the fines exceeded $460. On Jan. 2, 12 miners died after an explosion.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania introduced a bill that will raise the maximum penalty for safety violations from $60,000 to $500,000.

Meanwhile, thousands of miners continue to descend into the earth to work at one of the country's most dangerous jobs.

We hope MSHA realizes now that their job is protecting these miners' lives, not the companies' profit margins.

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