Deregulation and the Sago mine

The West Virginia legislature has announced an investigation of the Sago mine disaster. And the US Congress will undoubtedly soon follow. What can be noted at this stage is that the accident that took the lives of the 12 miners occurred against a background of deregulatory zeal fostered by the Bush administration and especially by the (no longer) House majority leader, Tom DeLay.

Mr. DeLay has called the Environmental Protection Agency a "government gestapo," and he has been called "Congressman DeReg." Colleagues of his have said that he is on a "jihad against regulation." The National Journal wrote that his zest for deregulation dated back to his encounters with federal inspectors when he ran a pest-control business in Houston.

A direct connection between lax regulation and mine accidents may be hard to establish, but The Charleston Gazette and The Washington Post are among the newspapers that have reported a record of lenient enforcement at the Sago mine, which last year was cited 200 times for a variety of safety violations.

The US Mine Safety and Health Administration has gone very easy on the International Coal Group, the owners of the Sago mine. The biggest fine it has had to pay was $440.

The deregulatory attitude of the government is evident in the drop in referrals for coal mines for possible criminal action - dropping from 38 to 12 last year. The Bush administration has pursued a policy of forging a cooperative relationship between the mine operators and the safety administration. Most of the safety regulations proposed during the Clinton administration were dropped by President Bush soon after he came into office.

The federal and state investigations into the causes of the Sago disaster may take months, maybe years, to complete. But it is significant that the safety record of this mine was declining in the two years before the disaster. Significant, too, that fines for safety violations were often reduced in negotiations with the regional office of the safety administration.

One can only raise the question of whether the Bush-DeLay passion for deregulation and the lax treatment of violators played a part in the Sago disaster.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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