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On Doing Better Than 50%, Or, Could More “Made In USA” Mean More Jobs? August 16, 2011

We gotta grow some jobs, and that’s a fact, and we probably aren’t going to be able to do it with big ol’ jobs programs funded by the Federal Government, what with today’s politics and all, and that means if this Administration wants to stay in the jobs game they’re going to have to find some smaller and more creative ways to do it.

They are also going to have to come up with ideas that are pretty much “bulletproof”, meaning that they are so hard to object to that even Allen West and Louie Gohmert will not want to be on record saying “no no no!”; alternatively, solutions that work around the legislative process entirely could represent the other form of “bulletproof-ery”.

Well, I have one of those “maybe bulletproof” ideas for you today, and it has to do with how “Made in USA” the things are that our Government buys.

The archer sees the mark along the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows might go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable.

–From The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

For the rest of the story to make sense, we’ll have to define a term; specifically, “Made in USA”.

Most manufacturers in the US have to meet a very stringent standard before they can refer to a product as “Made in USA”; here’s how the standard is described by the Federal Trade Commission:

Traditionally, the Commission has required that a product advertised as Made in USA be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S.

There are special rules, most notably for automobiles (also textiles, wool, and fur), but for the most part everyone else goes by the “all or virtually all” standard when they claim something is “Made in USA”.

With one giant exception.

When the Federal Government “Buys American”, anything with over 50% US content is considered “Made in USA”; this according to the provisions of, naturally enough, the Buy American Act, 41 USC 10a – c. (Beyond the law, there are also certain Federal Regulations and Executive Orders involved; for now we’ll just call it all “the law” and let it go at that.)

Now there doesn’t seem to be anything immediately evident in the law that would prevent the Federal Government from purchasing more than 50% US content if we wanted to, and the Big Idea here today is that if government at all levels began to purchase more than 50% US content, we could create more US jobs, now and in the future, and we could do it with a minimum of muss and fuss.

Obviously, there are practical limits as to how far you could take such an approach (for example, good luck buying a Made in USA laptop), and the current law has exceptions that reflect that reality.

But consider this: there are about 450.000 vehicles in the Federal inventory (that does not include military combat vehicles), with roughly half of those belonging to the Postal Service; the General Services Administration buys about 65.000 vehicles a year (they run the Federal motor pool, and that’s the other half of the inventory).

Beyond that, think of all the billions upon billions of dollars of more mundane things the government buys every year: janitorial supplies, paper and toner, desks and chairs…well, you get the idea; now imagine if more of all of that was made right here.

One example of how we can do better can be found in Celina, Tennessee, where a garment factory that was doing work for the Air Force found itself unable to compete for a subcontract on $100 million worth of uniforms being made for the TSA; that’s because the uniforms were being made in Mexico instead.

If the work was being done here, it could mean about 300 jobs in a town that could really use ‘em. (By law, military uniforms are supposed to be made in USA; that’s an imperfect process.)

Some things already are restricted: if we don’t have a reciprocal trade agreement with a country, they generally can’t sell to the US government; China and Taiwan fall into that group.

I’m often guilty of running stories too long, so we’re going to cut this short today with a summary…followed by a cliffhanger that should keep you looking forward to Part Two:

Government buys a whole lot of stuff, and we could be buying more of it in the USA, and if we did, it could translate into jobs in places like Celina, Tennessee.

But it’s not as simple a picture as you might think, and when we get together next time, we’ll talk about the impact of free trade agreements on “Made in USA” purchasing, we’ll get the AFL-CIO’s reaction to all of this, and, if all goes well, we’ll see if we can provide official reaction from the Obama Administration.

And even though you’ll be sitting in your seat…you’re only gonna need the edge…


Do Washington State Democrats Have A Labor Problem? Let’s Ask Jay Inslee July 7, 2011

OK: so I’ve been working what is, on one level, a Jay Inslee story (Inslee is the Congressman from Washington’s 1st District, now running for Governor in ’12), and, on another level, a story of why Democrats are having all kinds of problems with what should be “natural” constituencies – and why those problems might not be going away anytime soon.

I thought the two elements of this narrative would come together last Monday, when I attended the “announcement event” that marked the beginning of the Inslee Gubernatorial Campaign, and in fact they did…but it wasn’t in a way I would have expected, and that’s why we have something to talk about today.

I reached out to some helpful outside voices, including Inslee himself; all of that will be brought to the discussion – and as another news organization famously offers to do, I’ll report, and leave you to decide.

Krusty the Klown: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Good evening. Tonight my guest is AFL/CIO chairman George Meany, who will be discussing collective bargaining agreements

George Meaney: It’s a pleasure to be here, Krusty

Krusty the Klown: Let me be blunt: is there a Labor crisis in America today?

George Meaney: Well that depends what you mean by crisis…

–From “The Simpsons” episode S06E01, Bart of Darkness

So here’s what I know: Jay Inslee brings to the contest for Governor a Congressional voting record that could be great news for Washington State’s Progressive community: he’s generally supportive of LBGT and other civil rights issues, he seems to support the sort of elections I like (clean ones), he’s very much interested in a “next generation” energy and environmental policy, and he voted against the TARP Program (that’s the bank bailout that was passed in the last months of the Bush Administration) and the extension of the Patriot Act.

All good stuff.

But I also know this: if you are a State worker in Washington State, you are under attack, and you have been for some time now – and among the attackers are members of the Democratic Party – and the reason I’m so personally familiar with this fact is because The Girlfriend is one of those workers (she’s a nurse working within the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and she has been for more than 15 years), and I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.

And I know that for these workers, each year the question becomes: “This year’s wage cuts: in cash, by jacking the cost of health care, or through furlough days?”

This sort of problem extends to workers all across the State, as business interests target the State’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Industrial Insurance programs for attack, to give just two examples of recent legislative battles.

And the State’s Unions are reacting: I had a back and forth with Kathy Cummings (she’s the Communications Director for WSLC, the Washington State Labor Council), who confirmed what I thought I’d been seeing: that since 2009 there has been an effort by the WSLC to bring the fight to Washington State Democrats, including a successful effort to unseat State Senator Jean Berkey, who was targeted, according to Cummings, because of her votes on UI, public education and health care, pollution laws, and tax policy, which the WSLC viewed as favoring corporate interests.

2009, by the way, was a watershed year for this State’s Labor unions, as that was the year Washington Democratic leaders actually called in the State Patrol to investigate whether internal discussions about whether to withhold future campaign contributions if those Democrats didn’t get more cooperative was some sort of criminal act.

As a result, the WSLC formed the DIME PAC (DIME, of course, is an acronym; Don’t Invest in More Excuses, to be specific); this and other Labor-associated PACs are apparently acting as any PAC can, much to the chagrin of Democrats and business interests alike, including what appears to have been a controversial decision to promote a Republican in Berkey’s primary in order to knock her out of the contest early. (Washington uses a “top-two” primary system to determine who gets to the general election, and Berkey came in number three.)

And sure enough, Democrats do appear to be less than supportive: Unions held two rallies this spring at the State Capitol in Olympia, both of which I attended – and I couldn’t help but notice that Washington State Democrats weren’t up on the dais talking about how much they supported those workers gathered just outside.

In fact, the only elected Democrat I saw on either stage, in March or April, speaking to the crowds was State Senator Spencer Coggs…who is a Wisconsin State Senator. (Kathy Cummings helpfully points out that, despite what I thought, about 20 Democrats were introduced by name and were somewhere around the stage at various times during the April event to show support – and you’ll want to keep that in mind as we go along.)

So here’s what I’m thinking as I’m on my way to attend Jay Inslee’s announcement and presser last Monday: Inslee is presumably aware of this history, and if he were to become Washington State’s top elected Democrat he would presumably want to act in a manner that heals that rift…which would be a pretty good story to report to a Progressive audience.

That is not how it turned out.

ME: “I attended two Labor rallies in Olympia over the past couple of months; the only Democratic elected official who seemed to be able to get out and speak to the crowd was from Wisconsin, Spencer Copps, State Senator [which was an error; I should have said Spencer Coggs]. I wondered what you think about that and what are you going to do to try to change it?”

INSLEE: “Well, I’m not sure what you’re referring to…”

ME: “Well, you mentioned honoring unions…”

INSLEE: “I’m sorry…”

ME: “Well, you mentioned honoring unions, these folks were out trying to promote union rights, but Democrats don’t seem to want to get out and support union rights in person. Do you see that as a problem; how would you like to change it?”

INSLEE: “I don’t see this as a problem, because I believe as I said I fundamentally believe in work, I fundamentally believe in workers, and I fundamentally believe that people have collective bargaining rights as an organized group, and I think what has gone on in Wisconsin is a travesty, and the reason it’s a travesty is that, uh, Governor Walker, if he wanted to be angry at someone, he shouldn’t have been angry at the first grade teachers, he should have been angry at the Wall Street investment bankers whose greed was responsible for the economic collapse, and yet I saw the Governor turn his sights on the middle class, and I don’t believe an assault on the middle class, which is what happened in Wisconsin, is productive for economic growth, of anyone in our State, or our country. Now I’ve been pretty forthright in that regard, and, uh, I’ll maintain that position.”

Here’s the video:

Now let me be the first to say that I did not ask the best possible question. What I should have done was be more specific about how much of a rift there is between Labor and Washington State’s Democrats, and then specifically asked what steps Inslee would take, to, as I said earlier, heal the rift.

So normally what you do in a case like that is you go back to the campaign staff and send a follow-up question, and some helpful person who is doing the Candidate’s communications work will get you an official response.

But that’s where it gets weird.

If you try to go to the campaign website to locate the contract information, it is literally nothing, except for three links: give me money, get on the mailing list, or click through to facebook.

I posted a note “on the wall” at facebook, asking who the contact person was for the campaign for media inquiries, and not only did that get no response, the request was removed from the wall within minutes.

I sent follow-up questions to the originating address of the email that invited me to the Inslee event in the first place and to his Congressional office; those also went unacknowledged.

And that, right there, is pretty much the entire story as I know it: there is a significant and growing rift between Labor and Washington State’s Democrats, I tried to bring Inslee out on the issue (albeit clumsily), which he did not seem to want to address – and, oddly enough, there appears to be no desire on the part of the campaign to take the opportunity to follow up and affirm that an Inslee Administration would be a friend of Labor when it comes to things like protecting UI, and not balancing the budget while exempting corporate interests from taxation, and protecting workers from environmental hazards on the job.

Except there is one more thing.

I asked the WSLC’s Cummings this question…

Since the 2010 election cycle, have Democrats become more reliable partners, in the estimation of the WSLC?

…and she gave me a bit of a “tease”: the WSLC will release their 2011 Legislative Report, which will address that very question, just in time for their Annual Convention, which begins on August 4th – and we are told to stay tuned.


Social Security: If You Can’t Kill The Program, Screw The People March 5, 2011

There’s a lot of ways to be petty and cheap and stupid, and a lot of ways to stick it to a program you don’t like, and by extension, the clients of that program…and this week the House Republicans have embarked on an effort to combine the two into one petty, cheap, and stupid way to stick it to the clients of Social Security and the workers who administer the program.

They’re going to sell it to you, if they can, as a way to “lower the deficit”, or words similar…but what this is really about is making the actual Social Security program work less well—because, after all, if a program is popular today, the best way to make it less so is to apply a bit of “treat ‘em like their cars were impounded” to every interaction customers have with the system.

And what better way to make sure that happens…then to aggressively demoralize everyone who works down at the ol’ Social Security office?

The foot less prompt to seek the morning dew,
The heart less bounding at emotion new,
And hope, once crushed, less quick to spring again.

–From Thyrsis, by Matthew Arnold

So here’s the deal, short and sweet: Social Security is amazingly efficient at running an annuity and income support program, both at the same time; in fact, in 2009 the Social Security Administration Old-Age and Survivors’ Benefit Program took in not quite $700 billion and disbursed $564 billion, writing checks to and serving millions of customers at the same time…and they did this with administrative expenses of about $3.4 billion—and that’s just about .6% of the distributions, all of this according to the Report of the Social Security Trustees for 2009.

In the private sector, companies who provide annuities have administrative costs that range from 50% to 500% higher. (Of course, Social Security doesn’t have to pay sales commissions.)

The Social Security folks are similarly frugal with the Disability Insurance Program (expenses run 2.3% of distributions), and if you combine the two the total is .9%.

Nonetheless, the plan from the House Republicans, who want to return to balanced budgets right now, if they are to be believed, is to cut $1.7 billion of those administrative costs from a budget of just under $12 billion in the remaining 7 months of the fiscal year, and, according to the involved union, that means in those next 7 months workers will have to take three weeks worth of furlough days to make that work.

If my quick math is correct it means they hope to close the office about 10% of the time while expecting the same amount of work to be done, which is probably not going to happen.

The likely end result will be callers who can’t get through without more of a struggle, checks that may or may not get out on time, an angry workforce, and a general result that equals more and more people saying “Social Security sucks”—and if you ask me, that’s the real goal of this effort: to make Social Security unpopular, thus setting the stage for more cuts to come later.

And just to put all this in perspective, we today give subsidies totaling about $4 billion a year to oil companies, apparently because gold-plated caviar is really, really, expensive, and the same budget-conscious House Republicans…every single one of ‘em…voted to protect that subsidy just a couple of days ago.

Social Security workers were out yesterday handing out leaflets to describe what’s going on, although as far as I know the leaflets didn’t say that this is just one more part of a giant plan that’s already raising its ugly head in places like Wisconsin and Indiana and Ohio and New Jersey: start a war against one group of American workers by claiming they’re not “real” workers or that they’re “special, extra-privileged” workers…and try to drag down all workers in the process.

A cut like this is a shot at these workers, and, by extension, all workers who might, you know, like a raise some day—and it’s also a shot at you, or your parents, or your grandparents, who will eventually have to deal with the results of all the cutting.

But in the end, it’s important to look at the bright side: the gold-plated caviar market will still be protected, thanks to that $4 billion a year in cash we’re donating to oil companies—and if I had to guess, BP’s senior management will not be looking at longer wait times the next time they call Louie Gohmert or Joe Barton or any one of a few dozen other Members who evidently represent Big Oil first…and Americans last.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This post was written with the support of the CAF State Blogger’s Network Project.


On Making Mining Safer, Part Two, Or, “Can We Appeal Safety To Death?” April 23, 2010

Filed under: Accountability,Labor Issues,Mine Safety,Politics,US Elections — fakeconsultant @ 3:48 pm
Tags: , , ,

It was about a week ago that we last got together to talk about safety in coal mines, and we have some new developments in the story that deserve a bit more of your attention.

As we discussed last time, there are a huge number of hazards inherent in the operations of underground coal mines, and there are a series of “mitigators” that can be applied to reduce those hazards.

Ironically, the biggest hazard these miners face today might not be underground at all.

In today’s story we’ll consider the possibility that the most dangerous location in the mining industry might actually be at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, where an enormous backlog in enforcement actions is keeping dangerous mines open that might otherwise be closed.

It’s a “bad news, good news” story—but it really does have a potential happy ending, and with a bit of pressure, we can actually make life a whole lot better for miners, and their families, all across the country.

“A Texas rancher shot a man dead and telegraphed a slick lawyer in Fort Worth, three hundred miles away, offering a $5000 fee. The attorney wired back, “Leaving for your town on next train, bringing three eye-witnesses.””

–Bennett Cerf, A Texas Sampler

In the previous story we had a long conversation about how coal is mined and how fines and closures can help to, shall we say, “provide the proper motivation” for mine operators.

Congress seems to agree, and after a series of incidents in 2006 that killed a number of miners new legislation was put into place that allows the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to close a mine, temporarily, if it should be warranted.

However, this can only occur if MSHA can establish that the mining operation has a history of ongoing violations that officially qualify as a Pattern of Violations (POV), which basically comes down to this:

“…(1) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations of a particular standard; (2) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations of standards related to the same hazard; or (3) a history of repeated significant and substantial violations caused by unwarrantable failure to comply…”

Once that pattern has been legally established, any additional findings of “serious and substantial” violations (S&S is the fancy insider term) in that mine by MSHA inspectors become closure orders, meaning that the miners have to either “withdraw” from the area that’s in violation, or that the entire mine may be closed down until things are fixed.

Mines that have new S&S violations while in this POV status also get bigger fines for each violation than if they weren’t in that position.

Would you be amazed if I told you there’s a loophole available to mine owners that can keep them out of this status?

I didn’t think so…and there is: violations don’t count unless and until they are fully adjudicated, which means administrative law judges have to rule on the merits of each and every violation that a mine operator might choose to appeal (a service provided by the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, hereinafter referred to as “the Commission”)…and by an amazing coincidence, the number of appeals of violations since the 2006 legislation went into effect is suddenly way up.

There has also been a lot more actual enforcement over at MSHA these days than in days past, and the number of enforcement actions brought by the agency has climbed from about 1500 cases a year in the Bush Administration’s first term to about 14,000 cases in Fiscal Year 2009; the total amount of fines assessed grew from $25 million to almost $200 million over the same time period.

The Commission’s administrative law judges also have to rule on the settlements that result from cases being worked out by negotiation between MSHA and mine operators; this is to try and ensure that MSHA doesn’t get too cozy with mine operators when making deals, a problem that has been attributed to the agency over the years.

The combination of these three factors has created, as of this writing, a backlog of about 16,000 unresolved cases that are moving around between MSHA and the Commission…and mine operators seem to have figured out that appeals are the smart way to game the process, as the outcome of any enforcement or POV designation is delayed by at least a year, and any potential penalty is likely to be reduced during the appeals process, often by as much as one-half.

Mine operators, by the way, disagree with this analysis: they would tell you that before the 2006 legislation the informal conferences they used to be able to have with MSHA inspectors helped to keep many potential violation cases out of the adjudication process entirely, keeping the caseloads, and backlogs, low.

Those on the other side would basically respond that the conferences were indeed an effective tool for mine operators to make enforcement orders go away, quickly and quietly; unfortunately, it wasn’t doing much to improve miners’ safety.

There are some numbers that we can look at that tell us a few things:

There is a group of 32 coal mines that would probably be in POV status today if it wasn’t for the fact that they have lots of violations that are still in the appeals process. Operators like Patriot Coal Company and Massey Energy have mines that are appealing more than 50% of the violations MSHA hands out, and a couple of operators have coal mines that contest up to 72% of violations.

It’s not just coal, either: there are 6 other mines that would likely be in POV status if they weren’t appealing more than 75% of their violations, including various cement and gold producers and Williams & Sons Slate & Tile, Inc., of Wind Gap, Pa., who have been appealing 100% of their violations.

Is all this appealing taking place because MSHA is writing huge numbers of frivolous violations?

“…if you look at the data, what it tells you is less than one-half of one percent of the violations issued by MSHA inspectors, uh, are vacated or thrown out. That means almost every violation that they issue is a violation…”

–Assistant Secretary Of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph Main, February 23, 2010

The upshot of all of this is that the 2006 legislation’s POV enforcement provisions have essentially been rendered useless; the effort now is to make a bad situation better.

How is that going to happen?

First, MSHA is considering plans to institute several technical changes in the flow of paperwork, most of which would result in filings either being presented sooner in the process or being prepared by the involved parties instead of the Commission’s administrative law judges.

Other proposed changes would combine multiple portions of the current system into more of a “one-stop” approach and combine multiple violations from one operator into one combined case.

Portions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure could also be adopted to replace some of what is today a more “proprietary” method of moving a case along.

A more controversial aspect of the new case management approach MHSA is considering would include a sort of “pretrial conference” that would conduct the fact-finding portion of the process before the case moves over to the Commission, leaving the judges only to apply the law to those facts and to decide the severity of any sanctions that the facts of the case warrant.

Another way to reduce the caseload facing each judge would be to increase the number of administrative law judges. The Commission’s current number of 10 is already scheduled to grow to 18 by the end of 2011. We’re told that because of the growth in the number of new filings this will not reduce the time to resolve cases; instead, this will essentially be an exercise in “treading water”.

MSHA and Commission senior managers have laid out two scenarios that would increase the number of judges to 28. The less aggressive scenario, when combined with the other changes, could reduce the backlog by 2014, the more aggressive, by January of 2013.

Where, you might ask, are these new judges to be found?

As it turns out, the Social Security Administration is a sort of “farm team” for the other Federal agencies that require such services, and the Commission expects they’ll be able to “poach” a few from over there if the budget authority is granted to do so.

I sent an email to a House staffer I know, looking to get a sense of how all this might play out; the on-the-record response being:

“We are looking at how to aggressively work down the backlog.”

And with all that said, let’s wrap this thing up:

Because of the new rules for handling violations, mine operators have benefitted, wittingly or unwittingly, from the new giant backlog of cases.

Certain mine operators are either aggressively protecting their interests in every way the law allows or interminably stalling just to save themselves from big fines and the annoying process of not killing their workers, depending on whom you ask; the outcome of that effort has been to make the POV regulations that were designed to compel better behavior unenforceable.

There are proposals that would reduce this backlog, and it appears that in Congress there is support for such an effort.

If you want to have an impact on this process, this would be a good time to let either Patty Murray (D-Recent Death Threat), who chairs the Senate’s Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee, or George Miller (One Of My Favorite Democrats-California), who is Chair of the Committee on Education and Labor in the House, know how you feel.

I’m told that there are Republicans, at least on the House side, who are also willing to help move this along, and Minnesota’s John Kline (the Education and Labor Committee’s Ranking Member) would be an excellent person to reach out to as well.

Since 1900 104,674 workers have died in the coal mines (we were still killing over a thousand a year well into the 1940s), and we’re finally to the point where fewer than 50 a year are dying…but that’s not good enough.

We still have a group of mine operators who see non-compliance with safety regulations, and the deaths that go with it, as a reasonable cost of doing business; we need to offer some friendly support to Congress, right now, to keep the reforms moving if we want to make that behavior stop.

We have a good situation here: the House appears to have bi-partisan support for such a move, and if there are Senators who want to stand up and threaten a filibuster, because they support a mine operator’s right to kill miners…well, that’s a pretty good place not to be if you’re in the getting elected business.

There are people running for both the House and the Senate who would like to advance this effort, and if you personally come across a candidate this political season…ask ‘em about all this, and see what kind of response you get.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I sit down to type these stories I’m not worried about the roof caving in, or the computer exploding, and there’s nobody around here trying to figure out whether it’s cheaper to let me die or do to some repairs so that I might survive another day on the job.

There is no reason why that should not be true for miners as well, and it’s about time we did what we have to do to make sure that what starts out as “just another day at the office” for nearly 135,000 Americans doesn’t end with you, and everybody you used to work with, going home in body bags.


On Making Coal Mining Safer, Or, “It’s The Fines, Stupid!” April 8, 2010

Filed under: Coal Mining,Economics,Labor Issues,Mine Safety — fakeconsultant @ 3:24 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

By now more or less everyone is aware that there has been a disastrous mining accident in West Virginia this week.

There are many people dead, and at the time this is written it is still possible that survivors might be found.

We don’t know much about why these disasters happen, for the most part, and we don’t really understand how to make things better.

Today, I’m here to fix some of that.

By the end of today’s story, you’ll understand a lot more about why people die in mines than you do now—and as an extra bonus, we’ll also discuss a radical new way to bring market forces into the process of making mines safer.

“…Death is still working like a mole,
And digs my grave at each remove:
Let grace work too, and on my soul
Drop from above…”

–George Herbert, Grace

As so often happens, we’re going to need to cover a bit of background: a bit less than half of coal mined in the US is found underground, and no matter how you go about it, mining coal is pretty frightening.

The “room and pillar” method of setting up a mine sounds like what it is: you clear out a large underground space, but you leave “pillars” of unmined ore to support whatever might be above, which could be additional levels of “rooms”, or it could be the mountain itself—but it’s most likely to be both.

“Longwall” mining involves removing far more material than room and pillar mining, and to make that happen the roof immediately adjacent to the mining equipment is braced. Eventually that bracing is removed and the roof is allowed to collapse behind the miners as they leave the mined space.

Here’s a video that illustrates the technique, courtesy of the Government of New South Wales, Australia’s Mine Subsidence Board:

If you can picture a five foot tall, 20 foot wide, spinning cylinder with giant teeth that can move up and down, attached to a low-slung tractor, you have a pretty good idea of what the continuous mining machine that’s used in room and pillar environments looks like.

Longwall machines have a spinning head that travels the length of the wall being mined; as a result these machines can be hundreds of feel long…or across, if you prefer.

The mines are accessed by different types of “shafts”. Some shafts are drilled diagonally into relatively shallow mines. Deeper mines are accessed with vertical shafts, which can reach down 2000 feet or more; additionally, there are conveyor systems, sometimes miles long, that move the ore up to the surface for processing.

So what can go wrong?

The first problem is dust. Coal dust is highly combustible (and the smaller the dust particles in any given volume of air, the more explosive potential exists), and there are lots of ways to create it: the mining machines create clouds of dust as they attack the walls, the conveyors carry dust through the mine, and vehicles stir up dust on the floors, to name just a few.

Once the dust is in the air, in sufficient quantity, any spark could cause an explosion—and just operating the machinery in the mine creates lots and lots of sparks.

(The presence of dust is also associated with black lung disease, but that’s a story for another day.)

The region of the country, oddly enough, has a lot to do with how much, and what size, of dust you’ll be dealing with in your mine, and mines in each District under the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) jurisdiction have their own particular dust characteristics.

It’s possible to monitor the air, in real time, and there are devices that measure how much explosive potential exists in the rock that’s in the chamber with the miners.

Coal dust can be controlled, first, by mixing it or covering it with other nonexplosive dust (finely ground limestone is often used for this purpose), and by getting water on the dust to keep it out of the air.

There are all kinds of considerations that determine how well “wetting” the ever-present dust clouds will work, including the surface tension of the liquid, droplet size, dust size…well, anyway, it’s a complex business, and the results have been pretty hit-and-miss.

There is good news: an experimental “water curtain” system is now coming into the field that offers the potential to reduce dust to 50% of the levels seen with today’s systems.

Oddly enough, no one thought, for the longest time, that dust was even a hazard—until November of 1963, when the worst known mine disaster in history killed 1,197 workers at Japan’s Miike coal mine.

Methane is the second big hazard. Concentrations above 5% are dangerous, and MSHA limits acceptable methane levels in the mines to 1%. The risk, as MSHA succinctly puts it, is from “frictional ignitions”, just as it is with coal dust.

Here’s what the folks at have to say about all this:

“…The problem is that methane is unavoidable. When you mine coal, you expose fissures and pores in the coal bed in which methane is lying. Therefore, you cannot help but release into a confined area a gas that is not only highly flammable with the potential to violently explode in a ball of flame but one that is also an asphyxiant, capable of driving out oxygen and causing death by suffocation…”

You’ll notice methane actually causes two problems: it can kill you if it blows up—and even if it doesn’t, just the presence of enough methane in the air can kill you.

The very imperfect solution here is ventilation—but the “forced air” ventilation requirement can be reduced considerably through the use of boreholes and “bleeders” to vent methane away from work areas using natural drafts.

The third reason people get killed in mines has to do with “geography”.

What I mean is that, instead of an explosion, the mine either caves in or floods; the one usually caused by removing pillars unsafely, the other sometimes caused by hitting unexpected pockets of water (the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania was flooded in just this way).

So here’s the thing: making life safe in this amazingly dangerous environment is amazingly expensive, and the common wisdom has been that if you’re running a mine it’s probably cheaper to let the MSHA folks levy a few fines—and to let a few miners die—than to really do what needs to be done to protect those workers.

That’s why, sometimes, mines consist of two mountains: the mountain that’s being bored into, and the mountain of violations that pile up over the course of a few decades of unsafe behavior—a mountain so large that sometimes even Fox News feels compelled to weigh in on just how bad things have become.

And that’s how we get to the “proposal” part of my proposal.

Now I know this is going to sound obvious: but if it’s cheaper today to violate the rules than it is to comply…well, why not make it more expensive to violate the rules than to comply?

Here’s what I mean: If a mine is missing a piece of safety equipment…say, the amount of ventilation is found to be insufficient…and the cost to mitigate the problem is $100,000…then let’s set the fine at $150,000, per day, per occurrence.

If it becomes known to MSHA that the new water curtain system is the best way to go, mandate that it be adopted—and once again, set the fine for failure to comply at 150% of the cost of compliance.

Now here’s the good part: we do not have sufficient personnel at MSHA to inspect all these mines…but we do know how to get those folks out there, and how to fund them, all thanks to the War on Drugs.

Travel through Texas, or Florida, or Tennessee, and you may very well find yourself being pulled over by a cop who basically earns his living shaking down those he is able to catch with drugs.

Seizures of cars and cash are the motivation here, and many of the drug task forces (as well as quite a few “traditional” law enforcement agencies) are highly dependent on this type of funding.

As you might guess, this creates…aggressive…officers, who are hustling, like crazy, to bring in all the income they can.

Well, I thought to myself, why not apply the same model to mine safety enforcement?

Why not create a “Mine Safety Task Force” that would be empowered to enter and inspect any mine at will, would be free to find each and every violation that might possibly exist—and who would have a financial stake in finding and fixing violations?

Now you might say to yourself that this could create people who cause way too much trouble for the mines—but if your father or brother was lying dead in that mine…if maybe you were next…would you think maybe causing mine owners some trouble they have never had before might be a pretty good idea after all?

One additional step: closures.

In addition to fines, there should be mandatory mine closures (with the mine providing pay to workers during the closure) for particularly egregious violations, or for patterns of the same violation over a long period of time.

What does all this do?

It makes the Power Of The Free Market into an enforcement tool, as it’s no longer cheaper to violate safety rules than it is to obey them…and what Good Conservative Mine Owner wants to tell America, out loud and in public, that they no longer believe in the free market?

So there you go: we now understand why these accidents occur, and we now have a plan that makes it too expensive to kill workers as a cost of doing business, which is a huge change from what we seem to be doing now.

What’s not to love?