Q: What's the difference between Utah's animal cruelty laws and mine safety laws?

A: Animal cruelty law calls for punishing offenders by making it a felony. But mine safety laws focus on responding to accidents by training mine workers and inspectors, rather than by prevention. There is no punishment for law-breaking mine operators.

If lawmakers had applied the same logic to animal cruelty as they do for mine safety, they would have called for educating animal trainers to teach animals how to protect themselves, create "first-responder programs" and build animal shelters and hospitals. And they might even have thrown in anger management for violators. Under the Coal Mine Safety Act (SB224), the state is responsible for promoting mine safety through training and coordination but not enforcement.

After the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, there was a great public outcry and a commitment to prevent accidents from ever happening again. There were vigils, fundraisers and a call for studies to prevent such disasters. There was even a state commission created that was charged with reviewing the role of state government in assuring the safety of miners and "their families and communities" and making recommendations including legislative action. From the start, any recommendations for state responsibility seemed doomed to failure when one senator on the commission said the feds could handle it.

We know how that turned out. The commission came out with an extensive list of recommendations that amounted to "closing the barn door after the horse got out." They recommended training for miners and inspectors on how to respond to accidents but little to prevent accidents or penalties for mine owners who failed to comply with safety laws.

Something doesn't seem right when lawmakers extensively debate to make animal cruelty a felony rather than a misdemeanor but with barely a whisper pass a law that only calls for promoting safety for miners. What it shows is not so much the public sentiment about safety, rather the lack of moral courage of legislators who instead respond to lobbyists who represent special interests that keep them in office. We now see how mine owners have been able to deal with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, besides lobbying, by stonewalling. Nationally, many mine owners/operators now automatically appeal 100 percent of MSHA safety citations. Crandall Canyon Mine owners/operators contested 271 of the 273 citations at its Utah mines from October 2007 through April 2008.

Though the commission was asked to determine if the state should establish its own safety office to prevent accidents, it was only able to agree on a minor state role. The Legislature's SB224 includes a powerless Utah Office of Coal Mine Safety that seems designed more to placate mine workers and their families. All this raises the question — do we not value labor and care about workers who daily risk their lives to make a living? What does it say about us, that we elect and allow lawmakers to respond to special-interest groups and quietly pass laws that give the appearance of caring for safety of mine workers but that really protect the status quo for mine owners? And what about the legislators who say they don't want federal involvement, yet when it comes to mine workers, they are eager to relinquish their safety to the faceless, toothless federal government? Where were the lawmakers who claim to be for the working people?

If Utah is committed to the safety of mine workers, then it should pass laws requiring approval of mine plans, safety inspection of mines before issuing mining permits, random inspections of mines to assure compliance with safety regulations and have the power to impose penalties that are effective. Citizens should demand lawmakers protect our workers.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]