Trump Says He “Saved Coal,” But Miner Deaths Nearly Doubled In His First Year

Coal miner Rodney Osborne was towards the end of a double shift at the Gateway Eagle Mine in West Virginia in June when the 32-year-old was crushed to death by a rotating drill. A subsequent investigation revealed that Osborne, who had been working at the Boone County mine for just five months, had not received adequate safety training on the device.

The state’s junior senator, Shelley Moore Capito, said she was heartbroken by the news of Osborne’s death, then reminded her constituents that “West Virginia coal miners like Rodney selflessly put so much on the line to … power our state.”

Osborne was not the only miner who paid the ultimate price. In all, 15 miners died since President Donald Trump took office in 2017—up from eight in all of 2016.

This is the dirty secret of Trump’s much-touted effort to help the coal industry. The president has been quick to celebrate the 771 net workers that were hired in 2017, but the administration’s push to support the dirtiest of fossil fuels has been accompanied by a surge in deaths of the workers who procure it. The 2017 death toll was the highest since 2014—when there were roughly 60,000 more miners at work in America.

Mining advocates put some of the blame on the president, whose support for mine owners has led to relaxed safety enforcement, scores of inexperienced new miners and inconsistent commitment to training programs and courses. In the meantime,  Republicans in the House want to cut mine safety budgets further, and Trump, who says he supports coal miners, has been silent on a Senate bill that would shore up miners’ pensions.

“When you look at the Trump administration policies and his ratcheting back of regulations … this administration has no moral compass about ethics,” said Joe Main, who ran the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama. “Companies now think we have a less aggressive sheriff in town.”

Trump’s support for coal is part of a larger economic vision of deregulation—one that he says is responsible for the stock market’s recent boom and higher gross domestic product.

“The stock market is way up (because) we took off restrictions and we took off regulations,” he said on January 16.

But for coal miners, those restrictions and regulations can be the difference between life and death.

A majority of the 15 victims were new to their job site and seven deaths involved miners with one year or less experience at the mine where they died, data show.

“There’s been a whole new generation of people hired into coal industry, younger workers who haven’t had the benefit of enough training,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. “But companies are resistant to taking time to take them off production to train them.”

The results can be deadly—and not only for new workers.

In May, Luches “Big Lou” Rosser, 44, was traveling on an electric locomotive deep in a West Virginia mine when his head hit a steel beam, killing him. The official investigation into his death found that Rosser, a husband and father of three, hadn’t been properly trained on the machine. He knew how it worked, but was never briefed on safety procedures.

“Showing someone how to push a button isn’t a training,” said Smith.

In July, Andrew Oxenrider, a 28-year-old with seven years on the job, exited his Caterpillar D9L bulldozer on the slope of a refuse bank. Oxenrider had not been trained in proper parking procedures for that model, and the bulldozer rolled backwards, killing him before falling to the bottom of the embankment.

And then there’s the case of Osborne, who disabled his drilling machine’s emergency shutoff system so he could make a minor alignment adjustment—only to get pinned between the cutter head and the coal seam, suffering “fatal crushing injuries,” state investigators revealed.

State officials issued seven citations to Rockwell Mining, including two that carry a $10,000 fine. But so far, the Trump administration’s mine safety agency has only recommended education.

Coal mining is inherently dangerous, with zero margin for error even under the best conditions. The average height of a mine tunnel is about three and a half feet, so miners crawl or duck-walk while avoiding big, mobile electrical equipment. Even a small lapse in safety can be catastrophic.

“I have been to too many mine explosions and funerals,” said West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat. “Too many miners have died for us to get to where we are today. We can not go backwards on safety.”

Last year’s death count suggests a step back. For the first seven months of the Trump administration, the top position at MSHA remained vacant. Congressional aide and White House adviser Wayne Palmer was finally put in charge of the agency in late August, but he had no experience in mining or mine safety.

Under Palmer’s oversight, MSHA proposed changing language about when safety inspections must be done at metal and non-metal mines. Instead of mandating the inspection before laborers enter a mine, operators could do the check “as miners begin their work,” a wording that allows mine owners to start a shift before an inspection, putting miners in potentially dangerous situations.

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, an industry group that spent $300,000 to lobby for the rule change and featured former Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski as the keynote speaker at its annual convention, was pleased with the new language, writing that “it appears that MSHA is willing to listen to the industry.”

In the fall, Trump finally appointed David Zatezalo, a retired coal mining executive, to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but Zatezalo has a questionable commitment to miners’ welfare, advocates say.

His Rhino Eastern Eagle mine in West Virginia, for example, was hit with multiple violations in 2010 and 2011. All together, Rhino mines have been issued more than $2.1 million in fines for 162 workplace safety or health violations since 2000.

Now Zatezalo runs an agency charged with creating training initiatives, monitoring accidents, and, most important, carrying out safety inspections at mines several times a year. Critics say he is a pawn of industry.

“He’s a former coal operator, he’s not a mine safety advocate,” said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety lawyer.

This week, Zatezalo told Newsweek that the Trump Administration is committed to the health and safety of America’s miners. “At MSHA, our focus is on ensuring that every miner is able to return safely to their loved ones at the end of every shift,” he said. “To ensure the health and safety of miners, MSHA will continue to conduct inspections, and vigorously emphasize safety enforcement, education and training.”

Such inspections and training are mandated by federal laws, but miner advocates are not convinced that Zatezalo will aggressively enforce them.

“[Zatezalo] might call the district manager in Barbourville, Kentucky and tell them how he wants the agency to run,” said Oppegard. “Influential mine operators might also call MSHA directly and say, ‘Your inspector is giving me a hard time,’ the head would then call the district manager and say, ‘Lay off.’ That kind of stuff happens. It really does.”

Main, the former MSHA director, said it is likely to get worse.

“If the perception of the industry is these guys are backing off, it won’t play out well for safety,” he said. “Word gets around the industry, and you know what’s going to happen there.”

Smith already sees alarming changes at MSHA, such as emphasizing a more-lenient safety check system called “compliance assistance,” which was a key program under President George W. Bush. If a compliance assistant visits a mine and notices a safety or health violation, he or she does not have the authority to issue a citation or fine, the way an official inspector would.

They’re essentially tourists in a mine, said Smith.

If such assistants see “something going on in a mine that’s bad or wrong, they can only ask the company to fix it,” he added. “The company can easily say, ‘No we don’t think it’s a problem’ and that’s the end of it. There’s no enforcement.”

MSHA responded to the recent surge in deaths by increasing the size of its compliance assistance plan, a voluntary program for mine operators. Advocates say compliance assistance is typically most popular with deregulation Republicans.

“You know one administration, a Democratic administration, is interested in enforcement and wants to do enforcement. And a Republican administration wants to do compliance assistance,” Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA official and occupational health researcher, told Ohio Valley Resource as mining deaths were on the rise last year.

MSHA still uses official inspectors to carry out its mandatory inspections of all underground mines four times a year and all surface mines twice a year, and compliance assistance programs existed under Democratic presidents, as well. But the Trump administration has further dulled its teeth.

In the past, for example, all compliance assistants were to be accompanied by miners’ representatives, but that is no longer the case, Smith said.

Compliance assistance is “a complete waste of time,” added Oppegard. “You can directly link the reliance on this method of inspection with an increase in mining disasters and fatalities.”

Annual miner deaths did increase twice during the Bush administration and were higher than under his successor, Barack Obama, who, in 2009, brought total miner deaths down below 20 for the first time in American history.

Manchin expressed his own concerns, telling Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta in a letter in September that MSHA inspectors were being instructed to remove their Representative Status credentials. Without the credentials, inspectors are not allowed to issue violations or remove miners from unsafe conditions.

“By separating the MSHA inspector from his or her credentials, one is essentially removing the ability of that MSHA inspector to issue an order to remove miners from the unsafe area and issue a violation which, particularly in the event of an imminent danger, can prove perilous,” Manchin wrote.

He also questioned why miners’ representatives were no longer able to walk with compliance assistants. “This is particularly alarming because, no one is better suited to spot inconsistencies or unsafe conditions that the very people who work at the mine day in and day out,” Manchin wrote.

In the midst of the current mine safety crisis, Congress has proposed to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million or 7 percent in the next fiscal year, leaving the agency with its lowest budget since FY 2013. Trump originally proposed to leave MSHA’s budget largely untouched but to reduce staffing by 42 positions.

“The proposed budget cut is absolutely a move towards reducing the inspectors in the coal industry,” said Smith, adding that the plan will result in an agency staffed by “inexperienced inspectors.”

“It takes five years to take an inspector up to speed,” Main added. “These are things that are really important to the life of a miner.”

Main said he worries about long-term leadership trickling out of the agency. “I was struggling to keep the agency functioning with the budget we had. Any additional cuts would hamper its ability to keep working,” he said.

On-site injuries are only one aspect of the job. Sustained exposure to coal dust leads to a number of respiratory diseases, such as black lung disease, a progressive illness with no cure. More than 76,000 miners have died of black lung since 1968.

Last month, Trump announced that MSHA was reconsidering rules intended to protect miners from breathing in the dust that causes black lung. And in his first days as president, Trump eliminated an Obama-era rule blocking coal companies from dumping waste into streams. Miner advocates say these rule changes and others are all about appeasing mine owners, not workers.

“They’re receiving a lot of complaints from coal operators that these rules are wasteful and useless, but that’s just false,” said Smith.

MSHA says it is still taking comments about these rules, which went into effect in 2014 and aim to lower the concentration of respirable coal mine dust in the air, but Oppegard believes there’s only one reason to revisit them: “To raise the amount of dust miners can breathe in up again or to create other loopholes where operators could violate the standard.”

Smith added that such air quality rules don’t get in the way of industry profits and are simply necessary.

“All of these regulations exist because someone was killed at work,” he said. “All those laws and regulations are written in a dead miner’s blood.”

Manchin disagrees, claiming that there are just too many environmental rules. “Some of the stuff doesn’t make sense and makes it hard for people to do their job,” he said.

Manchin is most upset with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who he says refuses to fund the pensions of 117,000 retired coal miners and dependents, who are at risk of losing their retirement funds due to the declining coal industry.

A Senate bill has 21 co-sponsors, but McConnell won’t move it and Trump hasn’t pushed the issue, Manchin said.

“We’re not talking big numbers here,” said Manchin. “Most pensions top out at $500 or $600 each month.”

Manchin added that Trump has been a sympathetic ear on the issue, but has not acted. To Joe Main, that means Trump’s rhetoric about caring for coal miners is empty.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard the president talk about this pension,” he said. “These are people who produced the energy for this country to grow, they’re owed healthcare and a darn pension.”

Trump’s efforts to prop up the coal industry are bucking decades of decline for the mineral, mostly due to a drop in global demand. Even with hundreds of new miners hired last year, the solar and wind industries still employed nearly three times as many people as the coal industry. Half of America’s coal-fired plants have shuttered since 2010 and since Trump took office at least 17 plants have announced they’ll be closing shop. Coal isn’t cost-competitive with cheaper natural gas and it faces new competition as the cost of renewable energy continues to decline.

Coal is a leading source of carbon emissions, and many nations are weaning themselves off the pollutant to fight climate change, even as officials in the United States deny some realities about global warming. Exports of coal fell 23 percent in 2015 and another 32 percent through the first half of 2016, though domestic production is slightly up, thanks to a growing economy under Trump.

“I’m the one that saved coal,” the president said in a year-end interview. “I’m the one that created jobs.”

But on the homefront, Trump’s call to end the “war on coal” appealed to his base: wealthy, anti-regulation industry leaders and blue-collar workers nostalgic for a past they likely never knew. Trump’s support for coal countered Hillary Clinton, who was widely misquoted during the campaign that she would intentionally “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Trump carried eight of the top nine coal-mining states in the 2016 election.

by Nicole Goodkind

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http://www.newsweek.com/coal-miners-safety-health-trump-788576


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