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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | At Issue | January 2006 

The Sago Mine Disaster
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Daniele Bennett becomes emotional while speaking to the media after learning her father was one of the coal miners that was killed in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. The company that owns the coal mine where 12 workers died expressed regret to relatives for having given them false hope that their loved ones had survived. (AFP/Mark Wilson)
In the long history of coal mine tragedies in Appalachia, few have borne the compound misery suffered in Sago, W.Va., where a dozen families were plunged from exultation to furious grief by a false report that their loved ones had survived a deadly mine explosion on Monday. After realizing the calamitous mistake, mining company officials took three hours to confirm the error and tell the truth to the dead miners' families, further devastating the community.

Survivors are left with the apology of the company officials and rescuers who eagerly rushed the false word forth. But government investigators must waste no time in ascertaining the actual cause of the blast, for the Sago mine was already notorious for its long list of safety violations and fines.

The mine, with more than 270 safety citations in the last two years, is the latest example of how workers' risks are balanced against company profits in an industry with pervasive political clout and patronage inroads in government regulatory agencies. Many of the Sago citations were serious enough to potentially set off accidental explosions and shaft collapses, and more than a dozen involved violations that mine operators knew about but failed to correct, according to government records.

Sadly, in the way mines are often run, the $24,000 in fines paid by the Sago managers last year constituted little more than the cost of doing business. In the Appalachian routine, miners balking at risky conditions down below can quickly forfeit their livelihood if they have no union protection.

Political figures from both parties have long defended and profited from ties to the coal industry. Whether or not that was a factor in the Sago mine's history, the Bush administration's cramming of important posts in the Department of the Interior with biased operatives from the coal, oil and gas industry is not reassuring about general safety in the mines. Steven Griles, a mining lobbyist before being appointed deputy secretary of the interior, devoted four years to rolling back mine regulations and then went back to lobbying for the industry.

Just as Hurricane Katrina forced Americans to look at the face of lingering poverty and racism, this mining tragedy should focus us all on another forgotten, mistreated corner of society. The Sago mine disaster is far more than a story of cruel miscommunication. The dozen dead miners deserve to be memorialized with fresh scrutiny of the state of mine safety regulation and a resurrection of political leadership willing to look beyond Big Coal to the interests of those who risk their lives in the mines.



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