GROWING up in West Virginia, as I did, tends to teach you something about coal mining. It's the way many people make a living. It's also the way some people are killed.
When the Farmington No. 9 mine blew up in 1968, I was studying law not far away. I stood down the road from the mine as the miners' families, people I knew, waited for news. The news was bad: 78 miners were dead. A high toll, but not unprecedented for West Virginia - or for 10 other states, from Ohio to Colorado, where past disasters had been even worse. A 1907 blast at Monongah, W. Va., near my own hometown, killed 361.
Today, the Farmington mine is sealed, a tomb for 13 miners. For me, the road from Farmington led to Washington. I spent 25 years working to protect miners. I was a small part of a remarkable movement, centered in the Appalachian coal fields, that drew attention to the human costs of mining coal and spurred Congress to action. Now I head the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. That agency didn't exist in 1968; neither did the law MSHA enforces.
Today both are in jeopardy. A bill before Congress would repeal the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, the sequel to a 1969 law, passed in the aftermath of Farmington. Mine inspections would be cut back drastically. Miners who stand up for safety would lose rights and remedies. Most fines for mine operators who break the law would be eliminated. So would MSHA itself. These steps are a disaster in the making for America's miners, for their families, and for the communities they live in.
Why would anyone want to radically revise the way we protect miners? Did the federal government fail in its efforts to improve mine safety and health? Just the opposite: Today, a coal miner is five times less likely to die on the job than in 1969. That year, 203 coal miners were killed. In 1995, the fatality rate was 47 - still too high, but a figure that represents remarkable progress. Mine explosions are rare. Black lung disease is no longer an epidemic. Yet coal production and productivity have soared.
The lessons of the last 25 years are clear: Death and disease, on a terrible scale, are not necessary byproducts of mining. Strong safety and health standards will not drive responsible mine operators out of business. Working together, government, labor, and industry can make a real difference. Countries around the world now look to the United States as a model for mine safety and health.
It's a strange time, then, for Congress to think about marching us back to the era of Farmington or even Monongah. No one argues - at least where mining is concerned - that things were better then, or that the states should have sole responsibility for mine safety and health. Nor does anyone suggest that miners are now too safe, too healthy.
Nonetheless, some people claim that MSHA and the mine act are expendable. Mine operators, they say, are fully committed to safety and health. The federal government has become too intrusive, too expensive. Miners and the taxpayers would be better served by a radically different approach, in which the government essentially subsidizes the industry's voluntary efforts. Instead of penalizing unsafe mine operators, help them comply with the law.
This argument is appealing. When it comes to making the workplace safer, cooperation is better than confrontation. At MSHA, I have been pleased to work with many mine operators who care about protecting their employees. They deserve encouragement. But I have also seen mine operators violate basic safety and health standards. Some operators were negligent. Some were reckless. Some were outright criminal in their pursuit of profit. We must have effective ways to deal with good operators, with bad operators, and with operators who fall in between. The mine act creates those tools.
We still need them. In a better world, mining would not be inherently dangerous. Mine operators would never be tempted to cut corners to beat the competition. A strong law would not be necessary. But miners don't work in that world. Their dangerous workplace changes every day. Their employers compete fiercely to produce more and spend less. To miners, MSHA inspectors are a welcome sight. It is no surprise, then, that miners oppose repealing the mine act and eliminating MSHA, as does the Clinton administration.
The industry itself has doubts about ''reforming'' mine safety and health. The head of the leading trade association told Congress that he feared the ''reappearance of operators who exited the mining industry rather than adhere to sound safety and health laws and regulations.'' Such operators drive down standards for industry as a whole.
Memories are short, especially for those far removed from the coal fields. At Farmington, it became clear that miners needed stronger protections. Many of those protections are finally in place. The fight now is about keeping them.