WASHINGTON -- President Bush led the nation in mourning yesterday as his administration pledged to find out why 12 coal miners died at the Sago mine in West Virginia.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which she oversees, would investigate the tragedy and "take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again."
Congressional Democrats called for "immediate" legislative hearings. They noted that the Sago mine was cited for more than 200 safety violations last year but continued to operate after paying modest fines, and they charged that the Bush administration has cut staff and installed mining company executives in key positions at the mine safety agency.
Under Republican leadership, Congress approved a budget for the mine safety agency that represents a nearly $5 million reduction "in real dollar terms" from last year's budget, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said. In 2001, the federal government spent $114.5 million on coal safety enforcement. The budget for fiscal year 2006 is $118.3 million, which is not enough to keep up with inflation.
Mine safety staff has been cut by 170 positions since 2001, Mr. Rahall said.
"Clearly, the agency needs more staff, not less," he said.
J. Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary for mine safety and health during the Clinton administration, likened the mine safety agency's response to the situation in the Sago mine to the slow response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Hurricane Katrina.
"It came too late, they were slow to act, and it was inadequate," Mr. McAteer said.
Mr. McAteer said the Bush administration has "favored cooperation with the industry [and] the diminution of enforcement."
"If you receive a $60 fine and you're selling coal at $100 a ton, you're not going to pay attention to that fine. There needs to be some incentive to have people pay attention to safety," Mr Mc-Ateer said.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, agreed that the mine safety agency "has become less of an enforcer and more of a compliance counselor. ... Every single safety regulation is written in the blood of coal miners. ... And every one of them is important."
But Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, which represents mining companies, said "the regulations have not changed. ... What we have seen that is different with the Bush administration is that they put a little more emphasis on working with mining companies to address any trends they see coming up."
At a White House briefing yesterday, spokesman Scott McClellan said improved mine safety has been a priority for the Bush administration.
"In fact, this administration proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Administration rules," Mr. McClellan said.
Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO, took issue with Mr. McClellan's remarks.
"They promised maximum penalties, but they never did anything about it," she said. "The enforcement at this mine in West Virginia is just sickening. Time after time MSHA was in this mine finding significant violations and the penalties were appalling -- something like an average of $247. It's just an absurdity. Here you have conditions that resulted in 18 shut-down orders in this mine. But it was never shut down completely. They just let it keep operating."
Robert Shull, who studies mine safety for the watchdog group OMB Watch, said the Mine Safety and Health Administration "has not been effective at all" either in enforcing safety regulations or in investigating tragedies. He said the mine agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration "are the black hole of government. Nothing comes out of it."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement, "We must figure out what went wrong in the Sago mine itself and where the company must answer for its safety record. We must also take action to be sure that the reckless communication that added to these families' pain never happens again."