Of all the federal agencies created by Congress, one of the true success stories is the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which grew out of a bipartisan effort in 1977.
Most observers in coal country consider MSHA a hard-charging, effective little outfit. When federal safety inspectors show up at mines, the operators understand they'd best be ready or they're going to get shut down or fined or both. Moreover, whistle-blowing coal miners know the agency has a track record of keeping complaints anonymous and acting on them. The tough standards implemented by MSHA inspectors have saved lives, lots of them, but they're not the only inspectors around. The states also field mine inspectors to poke into areas that MSHA may miss.
From hundreds of deaths in coal mines annually just a few decades ago, there were nine in 2016. This is still too many, but obviously progress has been made. Some of the decrease is due to the cutback in mining overall, but more is the product of inspections.
Now comes the rather shocking word that legislators in Kentucky and my home state of West Virginia want to reduce the number of state mine inspections or eliminate them altogether. The implied reason for this is that MSHA can take care of things, there's too much duplication, and the states can save money by bowing out. These are foolish ideas.
Even a successful agency like MSHA will always be one step back from local oversight. It's in its nature: It works at the pleasure of the powers that be in Washington. It's funded in the non-defense, discretionary part of the federal budget, which is always tempting to cut. In contrast, state mine inspectors have a stake in the neighborhoods in which they live. Because of their proximity to the mines they inspect, they will be privy to facts and practices that might be hidden from MSHA inspectors.
I grew up listening to my dad, a miner who rose through the ranks to be the mine superintendent in Coalwood, W.V. , yelling orders into his black company phone. He wanted to get coal out of the ground and into coal cars and on its way to steel mills. He took that as a great responsibility, but he also took as an equal responsibility keeping his men safe. He had good reason. His father had both his legs cut off, at the hip, in the mine.
Dad formed one of the first mine rescue teams in the country, and he kept after everyone to obey the safety rules, boxing the ears of more than one foreman who flaunted them. He held daily safety meetings, and when he heard of problems, he didn't depend on what somebody else said, he went to see for himself and fixed the situation.
But my dad, like so many coal mine owners and supervisors, was often resentful when state inspectors showed up. I heard him grumbling about it. He thought he knew more than they did about how to safely run his mine. I suspect my dad's frustration is what some mine operators feel now as federal inspectors arrive only to be closely followed by the local fellows. When legislators propose getting rid of the state inspections, some of these operators get up and salute but they're fools to do so.
Ultimately, my father, despite his griping, accepted the presence of the inspectors and admired more than a few of them. He even had them into our house where they could continue their arguments, mostly over the esoteric mechanics of roof support and ventilation, neither side ever giving in as far as I could tell and only toning down their differences when my mom was within earshot.
Dad understood very well these men were his peers, they were doing their jobs, and they were absolutely intent on keeping his miners safe and alive. I also think he understood that the tension between company officials and government inspectors was actually good for both.
When legislators do something that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, there's always the suspicion that they're in somebody's pocket. It's possible that this idea of eliminating state mine inspections was thought up by mine owners and carried forward by overly friendly pols — I don't know. But what I can definitely say is that if there's ever a reason for redundancy, it's to keep people safe. And if mine operators have half a brain, they've got to know that the best way to sell coal at a profit is to keep their mines operating, which requires safety today, tomorrow and forever.
My dad lived long enough to see MSHA created. The agency even asked him to be an inspector, but, if he was tempted, his black lung disease was too far along for him to do it. That's too bad. It could have been his last hurrah in the industry he loved, and he could have taught inspectors and operators a thing or two. My hope, and I believe my father would agree with it, is that Kentucky and West Virginia drop their bills and let both state and federal inspectors do their jobs. If politicians want to save money, that's fine. They can look for all the wasteful spending they want, but not where the lives of miners are involved.
Homer Hickam is the author of, among other works, three memoirs about West Virginia. The first, "Rocket Boys," was made into the movie "October Sky." His father, Homer Hickam Sr., worked at the Coalwood, W. Va. mine from 1930 to 1984 and died of black lung in 1989.