President Bush on Monday proposed a funding increase for the nation’s mine safety agency, but critics said that the budget hike is nowhere near enough.Bush asked Congress to give the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about $288 million in the 2007 financial year, an increase of 3.6 percent from the previous year.Under the proposal, MSHA’s coal enforcement branch would be able to fill 5 of the 190 staff jobs that have been eliminated over the last five years.“This budget does little more than offer the status quo,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
Over the last month, 16 coal miners have died in four separate accidents in West Virginia. Two miners have also died in Kentucky and one in Utah so far in 2006.In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through landmark new mine rescue legislation. Other states are rushing to follow his lead.Byrd and other members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation have proposed national legislation similar to Manchin’s bill.On Monday, MSHA officials conducted special mine safety training at mines around the nation as part of a “Stand Down for Safety” project announced after the two additional mine deaths last week in Boone County.Don Conrad, an MSHA trainer from Johnstown, Pa., said that he is handing out educational materials and making sure miners know how to reach emergency mine exits and how to use emergency oxygen supplies.“The coal mining community is pretty small, and I don’t think any of our mine operators want to see another explosion or even another fatality,” Conrad said during a conference call with reporters. “They’ve really taken up the banner and have done above and beyond what the minimum regulations are.”Conrad said that some miners he talked to did not know how little coal dust it takes to ignite a deadly explosion underground.“I got a couple of wrong answers, and I think I told them some things that they didn’t know,” Conrad said. “Mistakes are made, and sometimes things happen, but I don’t think any of our operators that I’m aware of don’t want to have a safe mine.”In press statements, MSHA has touted the 100 additional staffers that the agency dispatched to West Virginia after last week’s accidents.But, only about 30 of those staffers are inspectors who are helping with a special inspection sweep ordered by Manchin, said Bob Friend, acting deputy chief of MSHA.Those 30 inspectors are expected to be in the state through the end of this week, Friend said.
Currently, MSHA has about 113 inspectors assigned to its offices in West Virginia, agency officials have said.In his first four budget proposals, Bush called for cuts to MSHA’s budget.Since Bush took office, the agency’s coal enforcement budget has actually decreased by nearly $500,000 a year, according to congressional budget documents. During that same period, the agency’s coal enforcement staff has dropped from 1,233 to 1,043, the documents show.In his budget proposal for the 2007 financial year, which starts Oct. 1, Bush asked Congress to provide MSHA with an additional $1 million for mine rescue activities.MSHA’s budget document says that the money would be used for “mine rescue equipment such as breathing apparatuses, an integrated system to locate and communicate with trapped miners, and gas chromatographs.”Byrd said that the money is not enough.
“Four years of budget cuts [and] four years of coal enforcement staff cuts are left in place,” Byrd said. “Instead of offering significant resources to help make coal mines safer for the men and women who provide the power for this country, the Bush White House offers a band-aid.”On Monday afternoon, Byrd took to the Senate floor to action urge senators to quickly pass the mine safety legislation introduced last week by the West Virginia delegation.“The longer we wait to approve this legislation, the more likely it is that additional miners will die,” Byrd said.The Bush administration has not said whether it supports the delegation’s legislation.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.