Friday, January 06, 2006

What the West Virginia Sago Miners Can Teach Us

I have been thinking a lot this week about the disaster at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. I grew in West Virginia. My grandfather was a coal company doctor for a time, and my wife's grandfather worked in the mines. So this tragedy has weighed heavily on my mind.

Let's think about what happened. There is a lot of talk and fingerpointing about the mining company and its numerous safety violations. And maybe the company's actions did contribute to the accident, although that is not yet determined. If the company did contribute to the accident, I hope it pays through the nose for it.

But what about the miners?

There they were, trapped underground, knowing they might well die, and what did they do? Some of them left notes to comfort their families. That is truly remarkable. They thought first and foremost about those they were leaving behind. Even as they faced the end of their lives, they put others before themselves.

I have spent my professional career in the white collar world of law firms and law schools--about as far from a life in the mines as you can get. And yet there is a commonality here. As a professor, I strive to instill my students with a sense of mission and meaning about their careers. Lawyers are in a service profession, so serve. Put other people before yourself.

The Sago miners bring that message home in spades. The notes they left were magnificent acts of courage and compassion that move me profoundly. And they teach us all a good lesson--not about how to die, but rather about how to live.


Dana said...

what a thoughtful post. beautifully written and heartfelt. our thoughts and prayers are with the families. thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

If it turns out to be the case that the coal company paid a cheap price for the mine [evidence of knowing that there were some serious safety issues] it would be a shame that the coal companies put the shareholders before safety of these workers.

I think that the State of West Virginia should take control of all the least then the safety of the mines and miners would come before the profits of the shareholders.

And shouldn't this be what it should be?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

The balance between the best interests of society and big business is a perennially difficult issue--especially when you are talking about an economically disadvantaged state like West Virginia. To put the matter bluntly, is it better to have more people "safe" but unemployed, or have more people employed but holding admittedly dangerous jobs?

This really is the question, I think. Companies clearly have economic incentives to keep costs down--and just like people they sometimes cut corners they shouldn't. That's why mines are federally regulated--but this approach hasn't worked very well in recent decades. The agencies have been underfunded and subject to what in the law is known as "agency capture"--the idea that the agencies end up being controlled by the interests (the coal companies) they are supposed to be regulating.

But having said this, I do not think that having the state of WV take over the mines would help. WV (like my current home state of Mississippi, where I teach) is a poor state with a pretty small tax base. Or to state it differently, when you have a large percentage of your population at or below the poverty line, how do you pay to run the mine and keep it safe? You have to pay operational costs, run the risk of losing money on it, and have additional government employees running the operation. Plus equipment, healthcare, liability, etc. That money has to come from somewhere.

In addition, government-owned and run companies do not have a very good performance track record. They tend to be inefficient, expensive to run, and have small (if any profit margins).

So unfortunately, I think the answer we are left with is that we have to have government regulating the mine owners and operators in a meaningful fashion. Which right now, we don't have. That's not a very good answer, but so far it's the only viable one I can see.

If anyone else has other ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Anonymous said...

"'agency capture'--the idea that the agencies end up being controlled by the interests (the coal companies) they are supposed to be regulating."

so it's Bush's fault after all? Ha Ha. I'm just kidding.

No really. The President I'm guessing is the one who appoints the head of the Agency. So by President Bush appointing those whose priority of interests is Profit before expensive safety regulations is where the problem lies?

Gregory W. Bowman said...

In a way, yes, although that oversimplifies matters a great deal. Remember that this is not a new problem. Concerns over agency capture date back to the late 1950s and Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex. So simply blaming the President doesn't get to the heart of the matter. A little public outrage doesn't hurt in this case, since in dangerous industries like this a lack of safety procedures and precautions means more people get killed. If the industry could reliably self-regulate that would be fine, but historically that has not worked as well as we would like.