Chao’s Spin on Sago: We Saw the Problem, We Just Didn’t Do Anything About It

Appearing on MSNBC this morning, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao tried to defend the administration’s record on mine safety enforcement, stating that federal inspectors had “increased their inspections [at the Sago mine] by about 84 percent.”

It is true that inspectors increased their inspections at Sago, but Chao neglected to mention what the inspections found. Federal investigators repeatedly documented the unsafe conditions at the mine:

Nearly half of the 208 safety citations levied in 2005 against the Sago coal mine where 12 men died this week were “serious and substantial.” Federal inspectors found 20 dangerous roof-falls, 14 power wire insulation problems, and three cases of inadequate ventilation plans, among the 96 major violations.

Amber Helms, whose father died in the mine, said: “If they had that many violations”¦, they shouldn’t have had the mines open in my opinion.” The problem wasn’t inspections; the problem was enforcement. Proper enforcement at Sago may have saved lives. As the New York Times editorializes this morning, the starting premise of the federal investigation “must be that the explosion that choked off 12 workers’ lives would never have happened if all the safety rules now on the books had been properly enforced.”

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And each day, the evidence continues to mount that federal mine safety overseers, despite knowing about the problem, turned a blind eye to it:

Joe McGowan, a longtime Buckhannon, W.Va., resident who’s worked coal mines, oil and gas fields, and timber jobs in the past, says he spoke with his friend Junior Hamner, who died in the explosion, just two weeks ago about the dangers. “He said it’s nothing but a walking time bomb,” says Mr. McGowan, in a measured drawl. “He told me, ‘They’re going to kill us all.’”

Spinning statistics isn’t going to make mines any safer. Enforcing the laws will.