IT'S being called ``The Great Coal Dust Scam of 1991.'' But scam is too polite a word for the scandal that has been uncovered in coal mines across the country. In an industry in which black lung remains a scourge, causing 4,000 deaths a year, 504 coal companies stand accused of sabotaging the equipment used to measure the coal dust that is the source of black lung. The coal companies accused of the wrongdoing include the largest in the industry, and the fraud they have been charged with by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is massive. After a 20-month investigation, MSHA has issued 4,710 citations to the operators of 847 mines.
The new secretary of labor, Lynn Martin, under whose authority MSHA falls, has been outspoken about the magnitude of the scandal. ``I am seriously concerned over the potential health consequences of elevated coal mine dust levels going undetected because of sampling fraud,'' Ms. Martin declared. ``It seems almost an addiction to cheat at some mines.''
Martin's candor is refreshing. Admirably, she has not let the United Mine Workers' support of her victorious opponent in last year's US Senate election in Illinois color her thinking. The problem is not Martin or MSHA officials, but the system under which they must operate.
By law, coal-mine operators in the United States are required to take approximately 92,000 airborne dust samples a year. A pump collects respirable coal dust (dust that can be breathed in and cause black lung) on a sealed, preweighed filter cassette. The cassette is sent to MSHA labs to see if the dust collected falls within the standard - 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air - considered safe.
Fining the companies responsible for tampering with the coal-dust filters, even pursuing criminal charges, is a step in the right direction. But such penalties are not an effective deterrent. The companies that by law monitor coal-dust sampling have the most to gain from cheating. The investigation that revealed the current scandal was launched after a technician at a government lab noticed that a cassette had been tampered with. But it is just as easy to cheat, as one company acknowledged in a plea bar gain earlier this year, by supplying MSHA with inaccurate documentation or simply taking samples from outside rather than inside a mine. Even at $1,000 per violation, cheating is an affordable shortcut for most large coal companies.
The Department of Labor has announced that in the future it will require tamper-resistant sampling cassettes to be used for measuring coal dust. Meanwhile, there are at least three additional reforms that can be made in MSHA procedures:
Give MSHA officials complete responsibility for collecting coal-dust samples and running the equipment used to gather them. MSHA is bound to be more reliable than the coal companies in this area.
Grant miners the right to oversee the dust-sampling process from the time it begins until the filter cassette is sent to the lab. Nobody else has more incentive to keep the mines operating safely.
Take advantage of modern coal-dust sampling technology. Supplement current procedures by using direct-reading instruments that measure respirable coal dust. This way miners can correct a dangerous situation immediately rather than wait weeks for a lab report to come back.
The coal companies' reaction to the current scandal has been to charge everyone from mineworkers to MSHA officials with mishandling coal-dust samples. In the coming months, when Senate and House committees begin coal-dust hearings, the National Coal Association seems certain to repeat these charges. Their worries are understandable. Controlling coal dust can make production more expensive. Often the only way to ensure safe air is to slow down dust-generating equipment or take the time to make ventilatio n changes.
But to continue the present system is to guarantee that the wrong parties will pay for its abuses. Taxes already help support more than 260,000 ex-miners who can't work and who receive black-lung compensation. That bill will only increase if coal-dust safeguards continue to be abused.
As in the savings and loans scandal, there has been no mercy for those in the positions of greatest vulnerability. The difference is that in this unglamorous scandal, reform is a matter of life and death, not just profit and loss.