By James Sharpe
The Republican-led initiative in Congress to reduce the federal deficit could have a negative impact on small aggregates producers.
The problem may become particularly acute for small mines within the next two years. The agency has signaled its intent to tighten enforcement of its air contaminants standards in the Metal/Non-Metal (M/NM) sector. It has also announced an ambitious regulatory agenda. The proposed regulations that could have the greatest impact would be mandates to control exposure to crystalline silica and require safety and health management plans. A proposal to regulate impoundments is also expected.
In the works as well is a proposal to strengthen MSHA's pattern of violation enforcement tool, along with revisions to civil penalty procedures, and amendments to legal identity notification requirements. An emergency standard is coming to require proximity detectors in underground coal mines that MSHA may extend to all underground operations. If issued in March, as anticipated, it would take effect immediately.
The agency also launched special initiatives, the most notable being its Rules to Live By fatality prevention program. MSHA has since released a Rules to Live By II initiative in Coal and may well follow up with a third iteration in M/NM this year.
M/NM Administrator Neal Merrifield has promised plenty of assistance in the run-up to enforcement of the air contaminants standards. That is encouraging, but the proof will be in the pudding. Extensive outreach was promised before enforcement of Rules to Live By kicked off, too, yet some small operators had not heard of the program until this columnist contacted them about it.
Excluding assistance from inspectors, which we're told is practically nil, MSHA relies on its Educational Field Services (EFS) group and its Small Mine Office (SMO) to carry the bulk of the compliance assistance and training load. EFS puts on courses, reviews training plans and audits instructors. Unfortunately, MSHA's devotion to the mission of EFS is not especially strong. EFS personnel have been yanked from their regular duties over the last five months for round-the-clock guard watch at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia while the investigation into the fatal accident there continues.
As for SMO, its staff began an exodus after word broke over a year ago that the agency would terminate the office as a stand-alone entity and transfer its function to the districts. Morale is low and the office remains in limbo because Congress has not approved MSHA's 2011 budget that officially authorized the change.
In a press statement released in January, MSHA said it used enforcement, new regulations, outreach and awareness to try and curb mining deaths last year. Presumably, it will apply them again this year. But, as a state trade association executive pointed out, there was no specific mention of compliance assistance or training. Compliance assistance is a dirty word around the agency these days, so it is possible “outreach” serves as cover language.
Regardless, producers need assurance they will get the help they need. Many mine operators joined hands last year to try and save SMO. Some members of Congress got that message. A similar effort is needed again this year. MSHA will not be able to resist congressional budget language that requires the agency to set aside money exclusively to assist mine operators to comply with the labyrinth of federal laws, new regulations, initiatives and policy changes. The time to act is now.