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Calls intensify for congressional hearings on Sago Mine

A congressional investigation into the Sago Mine blast should focus on more than just the disaster, two key lawmakers say.Any hearings should also review how Congress cut federal safety enforcement funds last year and why the Bush administration named company executives to top enforcement positions at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Major Owens, D-N.Y., leading members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.Miller and Owens made their request for “immediate congressional hearings” in a letter to Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House committee.“The committee should investigate whether the Bush administration has employed people with proper regulatory experience in leadership positions at MSHA.“Many senior MSHA officials have come directly from the mining industry, raising concerns about their ability to effectively oversee the industry and protect its workers,” Miller and Owens wrote in their Wednesday letter.Miller and Owens cited five examples:s David D. Lauriski, a longtime coal industry executive, was President Bush’s first appointment to be assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. Lauriski previously held various management positions at Energy West Mining, a Utah coal company. Lauriski resigned from MSHA in November 2004.s John Caylor, deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, held management jobs with Cyprus Minerals Co., Amax Mining Co. and Magma Copper Co.s John Correll, another deputy assistant secretary, held management posts at Amax Mining and Peabody Coal. s Mark Ellis, special assistant for MSHA, was a top lawyer for the American Mining Congress, an industry trade and lobbying group.s Melinda Pon, MSHA’s chief of health for coal, was a management official at BHP Minerals-Utah International.Bush also appointed Stan Suboleski, a Massey Energy vice president, to a seat on the Mine Health and Safety Review Commission.“With mining company officials at the helm of MSHA,” the letter to Boehner states, “the agency’s focus has clearly shifted away from protecting miners. A 2005 report by the AFL-CIO found ... 17 [MSHA] standards to improve safety and health for miners have been withdrawn since President Bush took office, including air quality, chemical substances and respiratory standards.”Miller and Owens believe Sago hearings should study safety enforcement across the country by MSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Last year, Congress passed bills that cut MSHA’s budget by $4.9 million and OSHA’s budget by $6.7 million.
During Bush’s presidency, MSHA’s staff has dropped by 170 positions and OSHA’s staff has dropped by 162 jobs.“The committee has not held a single oversight hearing on MSHA since President Bush took office in January 2001,” the Miller and Owens wrote. “MSHA is responsible for the health and safety of tens of thousands of mine workers, who work in one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations.”Miller and Owens noted that Boehner’s committee had held no hearing on coal mine safety issues since Bush became president and only two hearings about OSHA, both of which looked at proposals to weaken federal enforcement laws.Miller and Owens want new committee hearings to gather testimony from MSHA and OSHA officials, industry experts and worker advocates, as well as individual coal miners and their families.Boehner and Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, released a statement on Wednesday saying they were pleased MSHA itself “moved quickly to launch a full investigation into what preceded and followed the tragedy at the Sago Mine.”“We expect MSHA to produce a thorough account of the events that occurred before, during and after this tragedy,” Boehner and Norwood wrote. “Following a full accounting of the facts, the committee will examine the results of the investigation and determine what appropriate steps may be necessary to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again.”
On Friday, Steve Forde, a committee spokesman, said the committee’s leadership would not hold any hearings immediately.On Saturday, Forde added, “Once we determine that hearings held would not interfere with the ongoing federal investigation and once we determine that meaningful facts have been established, a hearing certainly is one of the steps the committee and Chairman Boehner can choose to take.“He definitely sympathizes with Representative [Shelley Moore] Capito and others, and agrees with them that we need answers,” Forde said.West Virginia’s three House members all asked for hearings about the Sago tragedy.Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., sent a letter to Boehner on Wednesday asking for immediate hearings and criticizing the Bush administration for cutting MSHA’s safety enforcement budget.Capito, a Republican, sent a separate letter to Boehner on Thursday asking the committee to hold hearings focusing on issues including: the cause of the Sago explosion, how to prevent such explosions in the future and whether MSHA enforced federal regulations adequately.Congress will not reconvene until Jan. 31.To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.
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