Difficult questions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 14, 2006

Last week twelve miners perished in a West Virginia mine explosion at the Sago mine, a facility that had been cited for safety violations 273 times in the last two years by the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety & Health Administration.

Since October alone, Sago was cited more than 50 times for violations that included inadequate ventilation to guard against the buildup of explosive gases.

The tragedy was compounded by false initial reports that the miners had been found alive with inept company officials not correcting the misinformation until hours later.


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The mine’s shameful safety record coupled with the company’s pitiful efforts to notify bereaved families screams for anger to be directed somewhere.

Someone must have failed to do what they should have done, and 12 families are making funeral arrangements as a result.

My natural inclination, one that too often manifests itself in all of us, is to blame the government.

I cannot necessarily fault International Coal Group, the mining company that owned the Sago mine.

In a free market economy, a company’s primary duty is to maximize profits for investors and shareholders, not to insure against the possibility of any deadly accident ever taking place.

I cannot blame the labor unions for not taking a firmer stand against dangerous mining conditions.

They have to protect their workers while insuring that they do not cripple the industry that is the lifeblood of their membership.

And, I certainly do not blame the miners themselves, who have an obligation to their families to pursue gainful employment and good benefits wherever such can be found in the depressed economies of West Virginia’s coalfields.

But, it is easy to blame the federal Mine Safety & Health Administration which, one would presume from its name alone, has a primary mission to insure &uot;mine safety&uot; and the &uot;health&uot; of the industry’s workforce.

If nothing else, 12 deaths after 273 safety violations demands explanation.

While I am suspicious of the expansive role of government, and certainly no proponent of the nanny state, even the most libertarian-minded have to acknowledge a legitimate government police role to protect life, limb and property.

Where were the police powers, specifically the federal Mine Safety & Health Administration, in West Virginia?

When the natural order is for both the company and its workers alike to maximize risk in order to maximize profit, ought not it be the government’s role to protect its citizenry by enforcing safety measures, and if necessary, closing down a mine?

But, at what point should government protect us from our own decisions?

I found myself asking the same questions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Federal officials blamed state and local officials for not requesting proper assistance, and even blamed the victims for not evacuating New Orleans.

But even accepting state and local culpability, is there not some federal responsibility when, for whatever reason, state and local government is unable to act?

At that point, state and local government becomes another disaster victim requiring assistance.

Some argue that those living in New Orleans accepted the risk of living in a bowl below sea level and that miners accept the risk of their dangerous occupation.

Even if one disregards the children and infirm victims of Katrina, who certainly deserved a better relief effort, can a legitimate government role ever be to protect us from our own poor judgment?

In a whole host of victimless crimes such as gambling, smoking bans, and mandated seat belt use, the government has no problem exercising its judgment on our behalf.

Gun control advocates cite statistics that a gun poses the most danger to the owner and his family as justification for gun bans.

And, recently a gentleman asked the Suffolk City Council to impose a city wide hunting ban to protect his family from trespassing hunters.

The speaker may be correct in his assertion that a ban is an eventual certainty as suburbanites outnumber hunters in our city.

But at what point does it become a misuse of the government’s police power to curb a way of life like hunting in the name of public safety?

When does personal responsibility and freedom trump the government’s duty to protect its citizens?

The questions become difficult, and sometimes the distinctions between what is permitted and what is prohibited do not make philosophical sense.

Query why boxing is permitted, cockfighting banned, and slaughterhouses accepted.

Or, why in the name of national security, nail clippers are forbidden on airplanes but illegal immigrants are allowed to freely cross our borders.

Sometimes the government over-regulates, perhaps in the case of tobacco restrictions, but certainly by telling McDonald’s that its coffee is too hot or its French fries too fattening.

Yet at other times, the government fails miserably in its police power duties-to-wit, the Sago mine.

I do not have the answers to these difficult questions.

However angry I may feel about the Sago mine, or the Katrina response, I do appreciate the balancing act that our local, state and federal officials must navigate to protect health and safety while securing individual liberty.

Perhaps rather than always making our elected officials the scapegoat for our tragedies, we should pray that they have the wisdom of Solomon to do that which is necessary to ensure our safety while preserving our liberty.

When it comes to natural disasters, perhaps we should put our faith in God, in whose hands our fate ultimately lies.

And for the Sago miners, may we all pray that their souls rest in peace.

Suffolk resident Philip Infantino is an attorney with the firm Pender & Coward in Suffolk.