News of the death of 25 coal miners in West Virginia is a disaster and a human tragedy, and before going on to any policy points, it is worth pausing to reflect on the lives lost.
But if the past is any guide, the mine disaster will also become an argument about the problems of capitalism. Expect to hear about how callous and greedy owners of coal mines put their own profits ahead of the safety of workers.
The particulars of the owner and the mine in this case will no doubt be examined exhaustively, and you can also expect to hear calls for more and better regulation of mine safety.
But there are a few points that may be less obvious but are nonetheless worth mentioning. The first is that, as this New York Sun editorial written after the rescue of nine miners from a Pennsylvania coal mine pointed out, environmentalists help make coal mining more dangerous by objecting to safer but more unsightly strip mines, thus forcing the coal miners underground. The Sun editorial quoted from a Congressional hearing at which a senior legislative counsel of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Joan Mulhern, fretted in her testimony about the damage that surface coal mining would do to "forest birds" and "aquatic life." She suggested an alternative: "underground mines generate much less waste rock and dirt than surface mines." The well being of the forest birds and aquatic life isn't much comfort at this point to the families of the 25 dead coal miners.
The second point is that coal mining is a heavily regulated industry, both at the state and federal levels. According to the West Virginia state budget (pdf), the state is spending $14 million in 2010 on its Office of Miners' Health, Safety, and Training, which has 138 full-time employees. That's up from $12 million in 2009, and it doesn't include additional spending on the state's Coal Mine Safety and Technical Review Committee and the state's Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.
At the federal level, according to the Department of Labor's detailed budget data on the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (pdf), funding for Coal Mine Safety and Health soared to $154 million in 2009 from $115 million in 2005, representing an increase to 1,186 full time federal coal mine safety personnel from 1,043.
In other words, just as 39,000 American financial regulators failed to prevent a financial crisis, more than 1,000 coal mine safety officials failed to prevent a 25-death coal mine disaster. The dominant narrative in each case tends to be a failure of capitalism rather than a failure of regulation, or of the assumptions that underly the regulatory effort. What gets the public attention, of course, are the disasters, rather than all those times the coal miners safely make it out of the mine.