The federal government is kidding itself if it thinks a $435,000 fine against Jim Walter Resources for a coal mine explosion that took 13 lives will get the industry's attention. If anything, the fine, which amounts to $33,000 for each lost life, is a vivid reminder of how poorly the nation protects the most vulnerable members of an essential workforce. The government's fine and Walter's response add to an already sad chapter.
The miners were killed on Sept. 23, 2001 after two explosions in an Alabama mine. The first blast was caused by a damaged battery, which ignited methane gas. The second and much more powerful blast was caused by a buildup of volatile gases, killing the miners as they tried to rescue colleagues injured by the first explosion.
The U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Walter for eight safety violations the government said contributed to the disaster. The fines levied last month were the maximum possible for what the government called "flagrant" safety violations. "It is our sincere hope," said Dave Lauriski, Labor's assistant secretary for mine safety, "that the mining industry will take the lessons learned from this tragedy to prevent such occurrences in the future."
It will take more than a meager financial penalty to induce mining companies to make serious investments in safety, training and equipment. Walter's parent company, Tampa-based Walter Industries, is a $2-billion conglomerate. The fine it faces for 13 deaths is negligible in a monetary sense _ and it plans to appeal, anyway. The company, which faces 11 lawsuits from relatives of the victims, is no doubt trying to save face and limit settlements and claims.
It's reprehensible to see these deaths reduced to lawyering over monetary terms. We would rather hear Walter address the complaint that it failed to limit the buildup of combustible coal dust and failed to properly evacuate the mine after the first explosion. The government also said Walter lacked adequate safety checks and procedures.
But the miners' union and the government safety agency bear some responsibility, too. The union failed to follow up on legitimate safety concerns, and federal regulators were too lax in prosecuting complaints about unsafe working conditions.
The danger of mining is supposed to come with the tradeoff that industry, unions and the government are united by a collective interest in safety. Certainly, as a broad theme, that's true. But the only ones who really paid in Alabama were the 13 men who rushed into the ground; they didn't wait for investigations, fault or fines to take responsibility. The way they died is in sharp juxtaposition to the refusal by the industry and the government to accept their share of the fault. If regulators thought the fine would grab attention, they were right _ it shows that, even today, some workers are largely considered expendable.