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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 6, 2006

Coal miner tragedy begs for more safety

It's easy to get caught up in the communications breakdown that kept hope alive, then abruptly took it away in that West Virginia coal mining tragedy this week.

While the human drama is compelling and elicits deep sympathy, the more serious breakdown in this matter is that of federal safety standards.

The whole tragic episode may have been avoided if the coal mine operators had placed more serious attention on the safety of the miners in the first place.

The number of safety concerns at ICG's Sago Mine is staggering: 208 federal safety violations last year, three times the amount the previous year; 21 federal citations for dangerous buildup of combustible materials; 14 injuries last year, nearly twice the number in 2004.

Most of the violations occurred before International Coal Group Inc. bought the mine two months ago.

For all that, the mine was levied fines, but the largest was a paltry $440. In the instance of the buildup of combustible materials, the likely cause of the mine explosion, the citations came with whopping $60 fines.

The accident cries out for tougher rules and fines. If that is a challenge due to President Bush's stacking of industry allies on key regulatory boards, then it will be up to Congress to push for higher standards even at non-union mines like Sago.

But now the tragedy has exposed the need for stronger oversight in an industry we might have seen as passe.

It's hard to imagine coal as the answer to our modern energy needs. But ICG pushes coal like it is America's future.

If it's to be any part of our energy plans, the industry should not be allowed by regulators to carry on with a 19th-century attitude toward mine safety.