Since 1969, federal inspectors have been required to inspect every underground coal mine in the nation "in its entirety" at least four times each year. Last week, coal industry lobbyists resumed a longstanding effort to eliminate — or at least greatly weaken — that requirement.
The National Mining Association wants less frequent inspections for mines with good safety records. In return, the group proposes that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration step up inspections of mines with safety problems, according to testimony before separate Senate and House hearings last week. "MSHA must base resource allocation decisions on documented need, rather than unexamined conformity with the directives contained in the Mine Act," Michael Peelish, a Foundation Coal Corp. vice president, told lawmakers. So far this year, 21 U.S. coal miners have died on the job. Twenty-two died in the mines in all of 2005. In West Virginia, the death of 16 miners in 2006 makes it the state's deadliest year since 1995. After 12 workers were killed in the Sago Mine disaster in early January, national and state lawmakers began hearings and investigations. West Virginia's congressional delegation called for major changes at MSHA, new safety and rescue rules, and tougher enforcement.
Gov. Joe Manchin has already pushed through new state-level mine rescue requirements. In Washington, MSHA has promised several improvements. But as of Friday, the agency had not published an emergency rule — announced Feb. 7 — to require additional oxygen. Mining industry officials have said they support increased safety efforts, but they question whether new rescue devices now mandated in West Virginia will really work.
And now, industry lobbyists have reopened their efforts to rework MSHA and the agency's more than 36-year-old inspection requirements. On Friday, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said he would oppose those efforts. "I hope that no one would try to take advantage of the mining tragedies in our state to make changes to the federal Mine Act that would be detrimental to the safety of our nation's miners," Byrd said. A decade ago, industry lobbyists and conservative activists failed in a campaign to eliminate MSHA altogether. Backed by the Heritage Foundation, then-Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., in June 1995 introduced a bill to move mine safety enforcement to a scaled-down version of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That legislation did not pass. But today, numerous co-sponsors of the Ballenger bill are in powerful positions in the House of Representatives. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is now chairman of the House subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is speaker of the House. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, is the GOP majority leader. Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., is chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce. And the idea of cutting back MSHA's inspection requirements has never died. During a July 1998 hearing, John Correll, director of safety for Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., testified on behalf of the National Mining Association. "It's always been my feeling that the Mine Act does not define the term 'inspection,' and I believe that it could be viewed as something other than walking every entryway, every crosscut, every belt," Correll said. "We have miles and miles of conveyor belting at a large, open-pit mine such as ours, and that consumes a great deal of time," Correll said. Joe Main, then-United Mine Workers safety director, told lawmakers at the same hearing that they should ask miners if they favored reducing inspection time or frequency. "I think the answer would be absolutely 'no,'" Main said. "And I think the reason for that is that it's sort of like walking the beats on the streets. "That's what has helped keep a lot of the operations safe," Main said. "And when you remove that, you run the risk of a deterioration of conditions at that mine by virtue of letting the system go on its own." Two years later, coal industry lawyer Joseph Ferrara with the firm Jackson Kelly, floated the proposal again during a September 2000 House committee hearing. "We are not suggesting through this proposal that the annual mandatory inspections be eliminated, but that their number and scope be reduced if a property has demonstrated achievement in the field of safety and health and a good compliance record," Ferrara said. Davitt McAteer, then assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, testified against that proposal during the 2000 hearing. "MSHA's inspection presence helps to maintain a level playing field for all operators where safety and health is concerned," McAteer said. After George W. Bush took over the White House in January 2001, longtime coal industry official Dave Lauriski was appointed to run MSHA. Lauriski made Correll one of his top deputies, and in May 2003, MSHA announced it planned to write rules to better focus the agency's inspections. "We want to focus our efforts at mines or areas of mines where we can effect the best return on our investment," Lauriski said during a speech to an industry group in Kentucky. Lauriski hired a consultant to study the issue. In its work plan, the consultant, ICF Consulting, said it would study "reducing the amount of time for conducting inspections, reducing manpower required to conduct inspections or alternate inspection procedures and processes." ICF criticized the mandatory inspections required by federal law, saying that they forced inspections "even at those operations with exemplary levels of safety and health performance." MSHA quietly dropped its "focused inspections" proposal in December 2003. The agency said it planned to "address this issue through nonregulatory means," a move that would eliminate public review and public comment on any change in policy. During a House subcommittee hearing last week, mining association vice president Bruce Watzman explained the industry's latest proposal. "The misperception exists that the Mine Act's mandate of four inspections annually for every underground mine and two inspections annually for every surface mine translates to only four and two visits annually," Watzman said. Watzman said that some large underground mines are inspected for more than 4,000 hours per year — or nearly 12 hours a day. "This means the presence of two to three inspectors each and every day the mine operates," Watzman said. "With infinite resources, this wouldn't be a concern. But none of us have that luxury. "In order to allocate its resources more effectively, we believe that the agency must foster a more flexible inspection protocol while maintaining compliance with the inspection mandates of the Mine Act," Watzman said. UMW President Cecil Roberts, testifying at the Senate hearing, said his organization would fight the industry proposal. "I think the problem is that MSHA has been way too flexible," Roberts said. "Every coal mine in this country is dangerous," Roberts said. "Anybody in this country who tells you that they work in a safe coal mine doesn't know what they are talking about."