Clashing views on Pa. Senate hopeful’s mining past

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Tom Smith, the candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania who made a small fortune in the coal mining business, ran mines that routinely performed poorly on a federal statistic that measured workers’ days lost because of on-the-job injuries, federal mining safety records show.

His mines, both surface and underground, regularly scored above the industry average of nonfatal days lost to accidents or injuries, a statistic that is used as an industry safety benchmark but is not without criticism. In two particular years, one of his mines reported the number of days lost to be more than 10 times the industry average, according to an Associated Press review of Mining Safety and Health Administration records.

Overall, Smith’s mines were flagged for more than 1,800 violations, roughly 40 percent of which were considered serious or substantial, meaning they could reasonably be expected to lead to a serious injury or illness. He paid tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Yet Smith contends the high number of days his workers missed is easily explained. He said the number was above average because he sent injured workers home to pursue rehabilitation rather than bringing them back for light duty, as some companies do.

“We tried very, very hard to run as safe a business as we could,” Smith said. Fear of an accident often kept him up at night, he said.

Smith is outspoken about the need to scale back the extent of the government’s role in regulating business and uses MSHA as the first example of a regulatory scheme that he would shut down in favor of leaving such work to states.

Smith said he was extra cautious about safety, not cavalier. Indeed, inspectors flagged Smith’s mines far less than other mines for the most serious possible violation, whether on a per-mine basis or per-ton of coal produced. Smith’s mines also never received a warning letter that tells an operator that it has a persistent pattern of violations that are considered a serious safety hazard.

Smith, a Republican who is running for statewide office for the first time, said he took safety seriously. For instance, he employed two full-time emergency medical technicians on site, twice the legal requirement, and employed two safety directors, he said.

And some critics say that statistic of workers’ days lost is misleading. Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer who worked for MSHA as an adviser and accident investigator, said he is hesitant to use the statistic because there are mining companies that do not report accidents, or they minimize days lost by bringing an injured worker back to sit at a desk.

Jack Spadaro, a former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, which trains inspectors, said in his experience, every company with a high injury rate has an excuse and instead should concentrate on fixing its problem.

MSHA, which collects the number, said it stands behind its accuracy. MSHA officials declined to discuss in detail the criticisms of continued use of the workers’ days lost statistic.

But Smith’s idea of eliminating MSHA is no improvement over the statistic, Oppegard said. He called it “states’ rights nonsense” that is irresponsible and ignores the tragic history of coal mining in the United States. Stronger miner safety laws are needed, Oppegard said, but legislation went nowhere even in the wake of the 2010 disaster at a West Virginia mine, in which 29 miners died in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Historically, state enforcement, including Pennsylvania’s, has been significantly weaker than federal enforcement, Oppegard said. State mining laws are less stringent, state enforcement agencies are significantly smaller than MSHA, and state agencies are typically more susceptible to political pressure not to vigorously enforce mine safety laws, he said.

Smith, a newcomer to statewide politics, is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is seeking a second six-year term, and he has given coal a high-profile place in his campaign. He accuses Casey of supporting stronger public health standards on coal-fired power plants that are contributing to mine closures, and a new ad out this week closes with a laid-off miner telling viewers that Smith will “fight for us because he’s one of us.”

The AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner from Pennsylvania, shot back quickly, saying Casey, not Smith, is a better ally for miners.

“When we fought to protect miners’ safety and health on the job, Tom Smith was on the other side,” Trumka said.

Smith’s dozen or so mines were not among the largest in the United States.

In any given year, 300 or 400 mines produced more coal than Smith’s biggest producer. Over nearly a quarter-century, his mines produced more than 17 million tons in the years he ran them. Compare that to Pennsylvania’s most productive mine in 2010, which produced almost 11 million tons in that year alone, according to the most recent federal statistics.

No catastrophes occurred at any of Smith’s mines. Perhaps the most serious incident at Smith’s mines was the 2005 death of a foreman who was using a bulldozer to push trees off the top of a 24-foot embankment in a road-building project. He was not wearing a seat belt when the bulldozer went over the embankment, inflicting the fatal injuries, MSHA said in the incident report. The machine also was inappropriate for the task, MSHA said.

The man was the third employee Smith hired when he started his mining company in the late 1980s.

“That was a very tragic day,” Smith said.

The most common violation flagged by inspectors had to do with regulations designed to control an explosion, whether properly sealed electrical circuits, control of coal dust or the maintenance of rock dust — a problem that is common among mines, say people who track industry safety.

Smith sold his mines in 2010, effectively ending his participation in that end of the business. That year, he reported total income of almost $22 million, according to tax returns released by the campaign.

More Safety Info:

  1. Wyoming coal mine accused of safety violations
  2. South Africa vows to halt mining violence
  3. Town relives past violence with new homicides
  4. MSHA orders end to use of defective air packs
  5. Senate takes up farm bill that changes safety net


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Posted in Business Safety News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.