The Sago coal mine disaster is a tale of the Bush administration's cronyism and its subservience to corporate interests.
Until official studies are finished, it will be difficult to know whether any shortcomings by the mine owners or the federal mine safety agency contributed to the Sago tragedy that killed 12 workers in West Virginia earlier this month. But the evidence so far highlights the administration's lack of concern about safety in mines and other workplaces.
An ongoing pattern of serious, repeated problems existed at Sago, where workers did not have a union to help them fight for safer conditions.
For the past two years, Sago recorded injuries at three times the rate of similar mines in the industry.
Last year, inspectors cited the owners for 208 safety violations, including inadequate ventilation and pre-shift safety inspections, and there were a dozen cases of the mine roof collapsing in the past six months.
Just a few weeks before the fatal accident, a Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector found in the mine piles of coal, build-up of explosive coal dust and inadequate use of limestone to prevent fires -- conditions that showed "a high degree of negligence for the health and safety of the miners," according to the inspector's report.
But the Mine Safety and Health Administration only fined the owners about $24,000 -- an average of less than $150 per violation -- even though nearly half were considered "significant and substantial."
So far the company has paid a little more than half of the fines.
Jack Spadaro, a former inspector who was forced out of his job by the Bush administration for his aggressive enforcement, told The Washington Post that the small fines were "absolutely absurd" and "the mine should have simply been closed."
It's part of a pattern of lax enforcement, according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service investigation.
Since 2001, the number of major fines in the coal mine industry dropped by 10 percent, and their size dropped by 43 percent -- with most still unpaid. Guilty pleas and convictions dropped by more than half in the first Bush term.
If the rescue crews could have reached the Sago miners faster, their lives could have been saved. But in 2002, the Bush administration killed a Clinton administration plan to upgrade the Mine Safety and Health Administration's mine rescue program.
Now, according to the Charleston Gazette, there is just one rescue team for every four underground mines. The law requires two crews for every mine.
When President Bush took office, he appointed as his first Mine Safety and Health Administration director, David Lauriski, a former coal industry executive, who downgraded enforcement in favor of a "cooperative alliance" with industry.
Four other top mine safety officials had worked as coal company executives, and according to the Charleston Gazette, Bush's new appointee is another industry manager, Richard Stickler, who "ran mines with injury rates twice the national average."
Bush has repeatedly tried to cut the agency's budget, including a $4.9 million reduction for this fiscal year, a pattern repeated at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
And the agency has cut 170 positions since 2001, despite warnings from the Department of Labor Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office that mine safety was being compromised.
Also, the Mine Safety and Health Administration dropped 17 of the 26 regulations the Clinton administration had proposed.
One early lesson from Sago and this appalling industry record is that workplace safety requires tough enforcement with meaningful penalties, both by federal agencies and unionized workers.
And the American people need a president committed to their safety on the job, not the priorities of corporate cronies.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com) and writes widely on workplace issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.