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Comprehensive Mine Safety Reform Is Back on the Table

By James Sharpe

Accepting no for an answer is apparently not in the thinking of key Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

We're beginning to lose count, but re-introduction in mid-April of the failed Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 represents the third attempt in nearly four years to push a comprehensive mine safety reform bill through Congress.  S-Miner legislation, first put forth in 2007, passed the House in 2008 but died on the threat of a presidential veto.  Then the 2010 version of the Byrd bill was voted down in the lame duck session last December.  Now comes this look-alike legislation.  A similar version was introduced by Democrats in the Senate in January.

The Democrats have to know this bill has no chance of passage.  Their motive for introducing it then must be political.  That is, let the Republicans kill it, and then score political points before the next election by accusing the majority party of being insensitive to mine safety, especially in the wake of the Upper Big Branch (UBB) tragedy.

Yet, the strategy may be more subtle: embarrass the Republicans into proposing their own bill based on the thinking that some mine reform legislation is better than none.  Separate legislative proposals put forth by Reps. John Kline (MN) and Shelley Moore Capito (WV) last summer after the Byrd bill was introduced and when the Democrats were in control are cases in point.

The near certainty that no Democratic initiative will be voted into law should be no reason for mine operators to do nothing, though.  After the worst coal mine tragedy in 40 years, Republicans are under pressure to come up with something.  The GOP has taken the position that action is inappropriate as long as what the caused the UBB explosion remains elusive. The various accident investigations are nearing an end, so now is the time to be communicating what you think a bill should or should not contain.

Much of the beef in any new measure surely will target Coal.  But not all of it.  The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) wants:

  • Expanded subpoena authority.
  • New criminal penalties.
  • Whistleblower protections.
  • A strengthened Mine Act provision dealing with pattern violators.
  • Greater injunctive powers.

These would impact the entire mining industry, not just Coal.

It is likely many mine operators did not favor of any of what MSHA wants.  So, besides saying no to those provisions, it would be helpful to tell lawmakers what your wish list includes.  One item could be a compliance assistance program in mining similar to the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Under VPP, employers who agree to implement safety initiatives, including safety and health management systems, receive positive publicity for doing so and a reprieve from OSHA inspections.

How about at least one mandatory compliance assistance visit for all new or taken over mines before the enforcement corps shows up?  Yearly compliance assistance visits to mines with fewer than, say, five employees? No citations for de minimis violations or those abated during the course of that day's inspection?

Speaking of compliance assistance, consider putting a plug in for the MSHA's Small Mine Office. SMO still stands, although its legs seem to grow wobblier with each passing day.  Its demise imminent, staffers have departed and their slots go unfilled.  Morale has declined.  Recall that SMO has been on the chopping block since MSHA officially announced in its 2011 budget statement that SMO would be broken up and its staffers put under authority of the districts.  The Office continues to exist only because Congress has never passed the budget. MSHA has re-proposed the cut in its 2012 budget proposal.

From all appearances, SMO is a compliance assistance program begun under the Bush Administration that has saved miners' lives and reduced injuries among small mines.  In our view, MSHA has never offered a comprehensible explanation for why it wants to fix what isn't broken. However, within the labor-dominated Obama Administration, it is sheer blasphemy to speak of a successful compliance assistance program started by Republicans.  If so, this is petty politics at its worst.