Mining Tragedy Follows a Typical Pattern

The tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that has left 25 miners dead and four missing has once again thrust the Mine Safety and Health Administration into the spotlight. As usual, the focus on regulators’ responsibility to protect, in this case, workers comes too late.

In the aftermath of many public health and safety crises, investigations uncover a pattern of evidence leading up to the event that could have foreshadowed it. After Monday’s mine explosion, news reports have detailed the myriad safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other mines owned by Massey Energy. In the case of Toyota, the public learned after the fact that the Department of Transportation had for years received and dismissed complaints about unintended acceleration. The financial meltdown followed a similar pattern, as nobody in the know seemed to take seriously the risks posed by the housing bubble.

In the end, many naturally ask why the crisis was not averted. Bureaucrats become an easy target.

But consider MSHA. It is an agency with too few resources and too few inspectors that is underappreciated until tragedy strikes. MSHA must police major companies like Massey who specialize in pushing the safety envelope – doing just enough to avoid serious penalties. MSHA has a steep hill to climb.

Mine safety expert Celeste Monforton told the Washington Post, "[MSHA officials] need to be as shrewd and creative and protective of worker health and safety as what they get from the other side."

That’s true. MSHA needs to be aggressive. To do that, they need the support of both government and the public.

President Obama will meet next week with MSHA head Joe Main and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to talk about ways to improve mine safety policy. Congress is sure to follow with hearings and new legislative proposals when it returns from recess.

Unfortunately, I fear any resulting changes will prove to be marginal. The major hurdles, namely resource limitations and a deflating environment that leaves regulators chasing violators, are likely to remain.

I fear it because that’s the pattern with these types of regulatory problems. Years after the seeds of economic downturn were planted, consumers remain at risk in the absence of a strong consumer-focused financial regulator. Toyota continues to give its customers the run around, prioritizing profits ahead of safety.

The recurrence of these types of crises beg for broad, systemic change. Reactive regulatory policy isn’t working. To truly protect the public, agencies like MSHA need consistent, full-throated support from the public and their elected officials. Resource levels, policy, and the prevailing government-is-no-good culture must change.

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