Dark as a Dungeon

I come from a long line of stone cutters and miners, and I grew up in a small mountain mining town. I don’t know if this gives me any unique insight into the Sago mine tragedy, however. Our mines were lead mines, which are not nearly as hazardous as coal mines since lead is not combustible.

As a small town girl, though, it’s not hard to imagine the impact of those 12 deaths on the small town of Sago. In small towns everybody knows everybody, so everyone in town will have known somebody who died. The impact of the disaster on Sago will be as heavy as the impact of 9/11 on New York City.

Why are we still hearing about coal mine disasters? Surely by now technology exists that would minimize the dangers. And if not, why not? Is cheap coal more important than the lives of miners? Oh, wait …

In small mining towns, everyone’s lives depend on the benevolence of the mine owners. Mining towns tend to be one-industry towns, and if you don’t work for the mining company you will have a sales or service industry job that depends on the mining salaries that flow through the community. Thanks to unions, most miners get decent wages and benefits and have something to say about working conditions. But unions aren’t what they used to be, and in a one-industry town the one industry gets cut a lot of slack.

Joby Warrick reports in the Washington Post that the Sago mine had a history of safety violations. The current owners took possession of the mines only two months ago, but it seems the previous owners allowed conditions in the mines to deteriorate rather badly. And the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote citations but was, apparently, helpless to force the company to actually do anything.

In today’s Boston Globe, Peter Rousmaniere writes about the erosion of worker safety. He is writing about Massachusetts, but most of what he says applies to the nation.

When they sustain a serious work injury they are less able to access the protections of our four-generations-old workers’ compensation system.

It has become easier for employers to cut corners on their legal obligations. If Congress succeeds in criminalizing undocumented worker status, it will become even easier.

This puts a wrinkle on mining safety that hadn’t occurred to me before. Mining jobs have tended to go to the children of miners; in one-industry towns, most young people go from high school to the mine company’s employment office. I haven’t seen a list of the dead, but I expect many of the names are British, and that many of the miners could trace their ancestry back to Welsh, English, and Scottish miners who immigrated in the 19th century. But after reducing the power of unions and weakening federal regulations, I guess the hiring of illegals to work the mines will be the next step.

Although he wasn’t writing about mining, Harold Meyerson’s WaPo essay, “A Gentler Capitalism,” goes along with this story. Meyerson said one thing that pops out — “The American people have a lot more power as voters than they do as workers.” This correlates to what I was ranting about yesterday, that when righties talk about limiting the power of government to regulate business, what they’re really talking about is limiting the power of the people, otherwise known as workers or employees. Take that away, and workers will have no protection at all. Sweatshops and sharecropping, here we come …

Update: See The Super at American Street.

8 thoughts on “Dark as a Dungeon

  1. I’m amazed, how does the government not have the power to make the mine comply with safety regulations. Throw the owners ass in jail and let him out when all of the safety regulations have been met. The same type of thing happened here in Wisconsin. The state government is now publishing the names of those people or companies that owe taxes, hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxes, hoping to shame them into paying. Confiscate their house or assets, sell them, get OUR money. The power of government is really the power to even out the inequities that occur naturally in society. With the repubicans in power, as they are in WI, government has become little more than an annoyance to many business owners.

  2. We know — we didn’t even need the Abramoff example — that government officials from Washington to Sago can be bought off.

    We know — oh, Iraq is a good case in point — that other people’s lives don’t matter.

    Deep in the American psyche is the belief that material progress and comfort are more meaningful than caring about others. That’s why we make such a big fuss about religion and morality and goodness — that’s the scrim we hang in front the real action.

    It all boils down to saying one thing and doing another. Do I need to add what our leadership does every day? Saying one thing and doing another?

  3. One of the those things that came to mind while watching ‘Syriana’ was how our lifestyle (or as Bush says, ‘our economy’) is depending on cheap labor under harsh dangerous conditions whether in a mine, an oil field, or meat packing.

  4. My family worked in what was the world’s largest underground iron ore mine, until it shut down due to strike in 1960. My father, uncle, and grandfather were all miners. It was a company town with company houses.

    This incident touched me a lot more than most of the daily disasters which make up the news.

  5. The miners’ families learned of the 12 deaths after a harrowing night in which they were mistakenly told at first that 12 of the men were alive. It took three hours before the families were told the truth, and their joy turned instantly to fury.


    International Coal Group Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield:

    “These families are grief-stricken and frankly angry,” he said. “They certainly have some basis for their frustration, having been put through this emotional roller coaster.” Hatfield added, “Welcome to the worst day of my life.”


    “Welcome to the worst day of my life.”

    And how many of your family or friends died in that mine?

  6. As long as bush and his big money donors are ok, I bet the righties won’t even notice the deaths of these fine Americans..as I said in another post the government we have now doesn’t have time for people but they will always take calls from the corp. donors, do you think for a minute they would do anything to risk pissing off the people who hold the purse strings to make working conditions safer for common workers?Unless and until the American people demand otherwise we will be seeing more sad stories just like this one.Add another 12 lives to the totally cost of letting the fox guard the hen house…….the abramoff story and the miners story VERY MUCH go together… sadly lobbying is only done for profit, and who was there in congress to lobby for those miners?I hope the famlies sue the balls of the company owners.

  7. I would like to say my heart goes out to these families. My husband has worked underground in a slope mines for 7 years and it scares me to death everytime he leaves for work. This mines he works in is has a lot of gas in it, all it takes is one mistake even if they are regulations some are broke on a daily basis, if not by the company you have men that negect their duties or some is even stupied enought to think that they can smoke. I don’t know how these familes feel with the lost of a loved one, but I do know the great fear they’ve had on a daily basis when their men went to work. I just want them to know they will always be in my prayers.

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