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Published: Friday, 3/9/2007

Unsafe underground

APPARENTLY some things never change. Coal mining has always been a dangerous job, and greed, indifference, and fatalism have combined to keep it dangerous, even though modern technology has improved and could make the job safer. Yet the roll call of disasters goes on, as Sago, Aracoma Alma, and Kentucky Darby reminded Americans last year.

Some 47 coal miners died in 2006 - twice the number of the previous year - but those tragedies at least challenged the industry and the public officials who oversee it to the urgent need to better address safety issues.

Congress itself was moved to pass legislation seeking higher safety standards in the aftermath of the mine disasters.

For its part, our sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been monitoring the underground coal industry in a series of stories called Mine Dangers/Mine Safety. This has made for some depressing reading, because the dangers are still not giving ground to progress in the nation's mines.

The series revealed that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is actually falling behind in doing required coal mine inspections, despite its promises to increase the number of inspectors and enforcement actions.

In fact, the agency is losing as many inspectors through attrition as it is hiring, and the trend is likely to grow with more retirements and resignations.

Worse yet, the new inspectors may not be experienced enough to be effective. Under a federal law passed in 1997, applicants are supposed to have at least five years of practical training "to the maximum extent feasible," wording that has been interpreted to mean less than that. At job fairs across the country, applicants are being told that one year of experience may suffice.

The MSHA was supposed to have done 5,019 inspections in fiscal 2006, but it fell 254 short - a dramatic increase over the previous year, when 43 inspections were not completed on time.

The agency may be feeling a little shame, as evidenced by its attempt to finesse the figures about how many new inspectors it has hired. It claimed that 100 new inspectors had been hired since July, but had to admit that 53 of those were replacements.

To be fair, MHSA didn't create this enduring problem and doubtless it is trying to improve the situation. But it's not enough. Preventable mine disasters must, in fact, be prevented.

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