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Trump took credit for airline safety in 2017. What about the surge in coal miner deaths?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

President Donald Trump is taking credit for what a new study is calling the safest year on record for commercial aviation. The president, however, is refusing to take responsibility for what his mine safety agency is saying was a year where almost twice as many coal mine workers died on the job than the final year of the Obama administration.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Since taking office, I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation. Good news — it was just reported that there were zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

Over the past 20 years, the average number of airliner accidents has shown a steady and persistent decline, thanks to “safety-driven efforts” by international aviation organizations and the aviation industry, according to the Aviation Safety Network, an independent research group. Nowhere in the analysis did the researchers mention efforts by the Trump administration as a reason for the airline safety improvement.

In the coal mining sector, data from the Trump administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the federal government’s mine safety agency, show coal mining deaths nearly doubled in 2017. But unlike the aviation statistics, Trump isn’t taking any personal responsibility for the coal mining deaths. What’s more, he tapped a former coal executive with a record of safety violations to head MSHA.

The death of a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, on December 29 brought the total number of U.S. coal mining fatalities in 2017 to 15, according to MSHA’s website. Eight of the 15 coal mining deaths last year occurred in West Virginia. The remaining deaths occurred in Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In the previous year, under President Barack Obama, the coal industry saw its lowest number of coal mining fatalities to date, with eight deaths recorded across the country.

A number of factors could have led to the rise in coal mining deaths. The nation saw an uptick in coal production last year. Estimated coal production for the first 11 months of 2017 totaled 719 million short tons, 54 million short tons, or 8 percent, more than production for the same period in 2016. For 2018, though, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a drop in production due to a decrease in exports and slower domestic demand.

Employment in the coal mining sector reached about 51,700 in September, about 3,000 more than the year before. But since then, the sector’s job numbers have declined slightly each month.

Under the Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, mining companies could be taking more risks under the assumption that enforcement will be more lax. The House of Representatives wants to cut MSHA’s coal enforcement budget by $11 million, or almost 7 percent, after cutting the division’s budget by $7.9 million in FY 2017.

During his presidential campaign, Trump reached out to coal miners, telling them that he would bring jobs back to their communities, despite widespread consensus that coal will continue to decline in the long run. In return, the miners have put a lot of faith in Trump to fulfill his promise.

As part of his focus on coal, Trump selected David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive who has faced criticism over his company’s safety record, to serve as the head of MSHA. Zatezalo, who was confirmed by the Senate in November, retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at the company.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Last month, the Trump administration also announced plans to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

Most coal miners understand the increased dangers they face when the government steps back from safety enforcement. But the miners also see limited employment alternatives, unless they choose to uproot their families and relocate.

“We have all witnessed friends and family fight in vain for compensation after suffering from permanent injuries and black lung,” Nick Mullins, an author and former coal miner, wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost last month. “Few people seem to realize the lack of choices miners face. They do not realize that many miners would jump at the chance to earn a decent living without risking their life and sacrificing their health.”

This article was originally published on January 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

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