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Changes Coming to MSHA Should Have Operators Smiling

By James Sharpe

Prospects for a significant uptick in aggregate sales may be uncertain, but a development that should largely brighten the outlook of mine operators is the evolving role of MSHA at their workplaces.

Count me among the optimists, but I see a kinder, gentler MSHA on the horizon – thanks to the budget deficit and the elections last fall that have strengthened the hand of Republicans both in Washington and in many state governments around the country. Mine safety should not be political, but there is no debating the fact that is exactly what it has become since the Sago mine tragedy in January 2006.

The House is now firmly in GOP hands, and a large group of freshman lawmakers are bent on curbing spending. Congress has not yet approved a budget for 2011. This has left federal agencies feeling the pinch, because they have been forced to operate at 2010 levels. Compromised stopgap measures, used to keep the government open for weeks at a time, have taken away billions of dollars more. At best, MSHA's budget is flat. The agency won't say how the budget debate has affected its operations, and with the deliberations ongoing, we're not sure they know themselves.

These circumstances are mostly good news for mine operators. The reason is that these events are bound to soften an agency they have come to look upon as arrogant and heavy-handed. To be other than accommodating right now risks a cut in appropriations by lawmakers representing angry mine constituents. Already the agency has lowered its legislative goals considerably and has backed off its earlier hearty support for last year's mine legislation. A mine bill might indeed pass this year, but will only happen after reports from Upper Big Branch are in and may only address the Mine Act provision dealing with pattern violators.

MSHA's ambitious regulatory agenda will not be spared either. Funds that MSHA wants next year to hire more regulation writers will not be forthcoming. The coal sector is united in opposition to the proposed respirable coal dust rule, leaving prospects for a final regulation gravely in doubt. I believe a similar fate may await MSHA's forthcoming safety and health management plan proposal. Business interests may succeed in torpedoing a silica rule coming from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); the fallout, coupled with that from the expected dust rule debacle, could end silica rulemaking at MSHA, too. On the other hand, MSHA's proposed pattern of violation rule will likely be finalized, as well as an emergency standard that is coming on proximity detection.

In enforcement, expect initiatives to continue regarding pattern of violations, Rules to Live By and impact inspections. Nevertheless, in general, inspectors will become more reasonable. MSHA's plans to step up enforcement of its air contaminants standard at 56/57.5002 will be thwarted once Congress refuses to approve $900,000 in fiscal year 2012 for six new health inspectors. The agency's effort to kill the Small Mine Office has been caught up in the budget battle, and lawmakers may keep its funding intact next year. With no new money for judges to deal with the civil case backlog, that problem will be around for years to come.

Besides the Small Mine Office, there are other MSHA-funded programs that most operators would not want to see disappear: the state grants and Brookwood-Sago grants program, and the training plan and instructor evaluation programs conducted by Educational Field Services. The agency offers other educational, outreach and compliance assistance efforts, too. Their future is uncertain.

MSHA will probably be shielded from the massive budget cuts that appear to be the fate of OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency. That is because no one in Congress wants to be accused of culpability should another mine disaster strike. But cuts are coming, and the agency and mine operators are going to have to live with them.