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Centralia No. 5 Essay

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The obvious problem with Centralia No. 5 is that an explosion killed 111 people. However, prior to the actual explosion, the problem is less obvious, especially since Centralia No. 5 was similar to so many mines that did not explode. In this analysis, I will examine the possible roles and responsibilities of Driscoll O. Scanlan, the mine inspector, given the “corruption of modern administrative enterprises” prior to the accident. From this perspective, the perspective of a public official in the field, the problem is that a potential danger exists and the regulatory machinery in place to address the danger is ineffective.

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As an expert, Scanlan recommended that the mine be “dusted” with non-explosive, pulverized stone to diminish the possibility of the coal dust’s exploding. However, his expert advice alone was not enough to motivate a response.


The chronology of the case shows a progression of “appropriate” action within the existing law and according to organization or bureaucratic norms. On an organiza¬tional level, the players include the State of Illinois, the U.S. Government, the Centralia Coal Company, the United Mine Workers of America, and the miners themselves, who could hardly be said to have been well represented by any of the others. Beginning in 1941, Scanlan’s reports of “excessive coal dust” in the Centralia No. 5 mine were sent to Robert Medill, the Director of the Department of Mines and Minerals, and handled as “routine” by Robert Weir, the Assistant to the Director. All three positions were appointed by the Governor, Dwight H. Green. Also in 1941, the U.S. Bureau of Mines began making inspections of mines. The first inspection of Centralia No. 5 was in September 1942. However, only the State of Illinois had any power to enforce compliance, and reports from the Bureau there¬fore had primary significance as further documentation in the hands of the Department of Mines and Minerals and the Governor.

Scanlan’s reports were forwarded to the Centralia Coal Company, owned by Bell & Zoller, with a letter requesting that the Company comply with the inspector’s recommendations. Needless to say, the Coal Company did not comply, which is predictable given the lack of any attempt to enforce the requests and the high demand during the war. The mine workers eventually began working through Local Union No. 52, led by William Rowekamp, recording secretary. Throughout the course of events, the mine workers sent correspondence to the State of Illinois, at first to Medill and then directly to the Governor. The letters consistently and emphatically requested attention to the danger present in the mine as documented by Scanlan’s extensive reports. The seriousness of the situation seemed to fade within the bureaucratic and political routine within the Department of Mines and Minerals.


Scanlan was faced with several logistical alternatives, but the motivations behind action were of two sorts. As I said before, all of the players followed paths of “appropriate” action within the existing law and according to organizational or bureaucratic norms. The only exception, perhaps, was the Centralia Coal Company. But the coal company clearly recognized a difference between a routine infraction and a serious infraction, at least as it concerned the correspondence from the Department of Mines and Minerals, and they had no indication that Scanlan’s reports on Centralia No. 5 were anything unusual. Scanlan’s performance was no exception. He did precisely what was required of him by his position. Even the Department itself complied with “the letter of the law.” Because the Director of the Department of Mines and Minerals has some discretion, it is not a requirement of law that every technically enforceable infraction actually be enforced.

This is a matter of judgment. Scanlan was clearly motivated by attention to law and bureaucratic norms, but he was also pulled by an obvious obligation to the public welfare, in this case the miners’ lives at Centralia No. 5. The problem confronting Scanlan was not so much a moral conflict as the need to recognize that compliance with his designated role was inadequate as a response, both as public official and as expert, to the greater responsibility to the public. And because Scanlan’s reports were extensive and thorough, including every infraction, he had a responsibility to make sure that the decision makers understood the gravity of the danger, perhaps by highlighting the more serious problems.

However, given that the “system” failed to recognize the danger, there were two possible paths of action: (1) work within the system, possibly in ways beyond the designated role of mine inspector; or (2) work outside the system and mobilize public concern, through the union or otherwise. There is a sense in which staying within the system would preserve Scanlan’s conformity with legal and organizational norms while still addressing the public welfare. However, there is ample evidence that the organizational players would be unresponsive or at least politically difficult.


I think that Scanlan could have effected a response within the system, although he would certainly have had to abandon a passive stance. First, the obligation to the general welfare clearly trumps any mere compliance with organizational norms and in this case the spirit of the law, never mind the letter of the law, is in the name of such general welfare. Second, the role of mine inspectors is to “police the mine operators.” This could be construed as a responsibility to report infractions and leave enforcement to the Director of the Department.

However, because the Director allows his subordinates to handle so much of the “routine,” it seems reasonable to expect the inspectors to handle cases like Centralia No. 5 more pro-actively. Third, there is a responsibility left on Scanlan’s shoulders as an expert and a professional. His technical expertise allows him to distinguish apparent and real dangers. And because his role in the field puts him in close proximity to the mines, he is perhaps the only individual with such responsibility in a situation where serious problems are apparent.


The costs for Scanlan are evident. Because his position is a “political patronage job,” any aggressive pursuit of his responsibilities runs the risk of getting him removed from his position. Of course, this is as much a matter of how one negotiates the political terrain as of what one is trying to accomplish. I have no doubt that interesting correspondence, emphasizing the prudence of avoiding deaths in the mines, could have been sent to Governor Green, with the assistance and political experience of the Director of the Department of Mines and Minerals, of course. Even if Scanlan loses his job, the clear benefits are 111 lives. There are hidden benefits as well, though. By generating a relationship with the Director and the Governor, Scanlan is creating a mechanism for handling this sort of issue—a sort of policy formation from below. Given that Centralia No. 5 appears no different from the other mines, this may be the more pressing issue anyway.

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