Coal Tattoo

Coal mine safety and the presidential election

Helmets are place on crosses on a table during a memorial service for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine during which President Barack Obama will give the eulogy in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

For folks who may have missed them, we had two stories in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail that addressed coal-mining issues that we certainly aren’t hearing candidates talk about during the ongoing presidential race — even as both President Obama and Gov. Romney try to attract swing-state voters, including some in coalfield communities of Ohio and Virginia.

First, under the headline Mine safety absent from presidential campaign’s coal debate, we explained:

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tours the coalfields in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia, he promises to reverse Obama administration environmental regulations the industry says are costing miners their jobs.

But miners seldom hear that a Romney administration is also likely to abandon new rules and reduce safety enforcement meant to protect their lives.

As part of his campaign, the Republican nominee has embraced changes in federal practices that would block new worker safety and health standards.

Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is among the GOP House leadership that has for two years blocked a coal-mine safety reform bill and threatened to end Obama efforts to fight deadly black lung disease.

And Ryan authored a federal budget plan containing budget cuts that are severe enough that critics say they would gut U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration enforcement.

“When you hear these guys talking about over-regulation, they’re not just talking about environmental regulations,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. “They’re talking about health and safety regulations.”

But we also pointed out:

Most mine safety watchdogs give Obama generally strong marks in many areas, but Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, says there’s one simple reason the president hasn’t campaigned on the issue.

“They’re hesitant to say anything, because they had the largest disaster in 40 years during their time in office,” McAteer said.

On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, killing 29 miners at the non-union operation.

Multiple investigation reports blamed the disaster on a deliberate effort by Massey to evade federal mine safety rules.

But the disaster also led to a long series of embarrassing disclosures about MSHA’s failure to take adequate enforcement measures at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.

In a second story, we pointed out:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney promises that one of his first acts in office will be to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In his campaign for West Virginia governor, Republican Bill Maloney also bashes the law. So does GOP Senate candidate John Raese.

Seldom mentioned in the debate over health care, though, is that repealing the act would remove a major new provision of black lung law that has made it easier for disabled miners or their widows to get federal benefits for the deadly disease.

At issue is little-noticed language slipped into the health-care bill by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to help with longstanding problems faced by miners and widows seeking black lung benefits.

“Repeal of the Affordable Care Act would strip away access to critically important benefits for miners with black lung and their widows,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.

Unfortunately, the national media continues to ignore these sorts of issues at if spits out horse-race and campaign color stories like the one this weekend from The New York Times:

When Jay Swiney emerges from the night shift in the coal mines to assume his duties as mayor of Appalachia, Va., it is hard for him to miss the partisan forces rocking the heavily unionized Democratic hamlets in the mountains along the Tennessee border.

Billboards proclaim “America or Obama — You Can’t Have Them Both!” and “Yes, Coal; No-bama.” Out-of-work miners are sporting baseball caps that say “Coal=Jobs” and T-shirts with the sarcastic message: “Make Coal Legal.” Yard signs and TV ads for Mitt Romney are everywhere.

Mr. Romney’s campaign is aggressively tapping into anger at President Obama’s environmental policies throughout the Appalachian counties where the state’s coal miners live, hoping that huge margins there will offset Mr. Obama’s equally aggressive campaign to woo female voters in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, just outside Washington.

The battle playing out in Virginia has echoes across the battleground states, where the final days of the presidential campaign have become a test of geographical strategies and an all-important focus on motivation, intensity and turnout. Republicans are pushing hard in suburban Denver and central Florida to appeal to Hispanic small business owners. Mr. Obama’s campaign is probing for white male voters around Toledo, where there are major auto plants that benefited from the auto bailout.

In a nearly 1,200-word story focused on the coalfields of southwest Virginia, two words that did not appear in the Times: Black lung. This despite the fact that the area is in the heart of the region where scientists say the resurgence of black lung has reached epidemic proportions.

Gosh, the Times could have pointed out, as we did on Sunday, that Gov. Romney’s plan to repeal Obamacare would not be a very good thing for coal miners or their widows who are trying to get federal black lung benefits. Or, they could have pointed out that congressional Republicans, including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for many months blocked an Obama administration plan to toughen coal dust standards to end black lung — or that the Obama MSHA hasn’t exactly moved with all due hast on those rules, regardless of the GOP roadblocks. The times could have explained that, in reality, black lung is one of those issues where both political parties have for decades failed to act in the public interest, and demanded that both campaigns answer questions about how exactly they would do something about this deadly disease.