MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Three members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are urging the U.S. solicitor of labor to reconsider plans to dramatically slash the number of people handling a backlog of contested mine safety violations, saying it's too soon to declare "mission accomplished."Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Monday released a copy of letter signed by fellow West Virginia Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall and by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.It urges Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris to reconsider proposed cuts to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that would reduce the number of people handling a backlog of cases from 74 to 44 full-time equivalent employees and subject remaining employees to furloughs.The reductions are part of the agency's proposal for dealing with the automatic federal budget cuts that have started to take effect and include closing offices in Atlanta and Arlington, Va., and downsizing an operation in Denver.Such cuts are "unacceptable" and "plainly disproportionate" to other work done by the solicitor's office, the letter says.The Office of the Solicitor didn't immediately comment Monday.
The lawmakers note that Congress gave the agency more than $22 million in fiscal year 2010, specifically to tackle a backlog of cases that mine operators had created over the years.That backlog had "weakened the deterrent effect of mine safety citations and their penalties, and also undermined efforts to penalize mines that have repeat safety violations," the letter said.The Labor Department hired 89 temporary employees, mostly lawyers, and opened new offices in five cities, to tackle the tens of thousands of cases, even as new ones continue to flood in.Tying cases up has sometimes hindered the ability of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to act quickly at problem mines such as Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch in Southern West Virginia. In April 2010, 29 men died in an explosion there despite a long history of violations.The letter to Harris says the overall size of the backlog has been reduced, but recent data show it still takes an average of 498 days for each case to be resolved -- more than double the historic average."It is too soon to declare mission accomplished," the letter says.