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Coal industry seeks 'voluntary' safety plans

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A year after the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster since 1970, the mining industry on Wednesday launched a campaign for a program that could allow companies with good safety records to avoid regular mandatory inspections.

The National Mining Association urged Congress to model the initiative after an existing Voluntary Protection Program at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Anthony Bumbico, vice president for safety at Arch Coal, pitched the idea on the association's behalf during a Wednesday hearing before a House Committee on Education and the Workforce subcommittee.

"In many respects, overly proscriptive regulatory requirements can inhibit the ability of companies to respond proactively to health and safety issues," Bumbico said in prepared testimony. "Often, the time spent dealing with bureaucratic requirements steals precious time that could be spent eliminating a barrier to safe performance."

Bumbico said the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration should create its own Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, as part of a safety model not based "strictly on enforcement."

"Enforcement is necessary, particularly with regard to 'bad actors,' but to truly modernize mine safety we have to develop performance structures that engage all stakeholders in a problem-solving manner," Bumbico told lawmakers.

Under the OSHA VPP program, companies that take part are exempted from certain planned inspections. If OSHA does inspect, based on a complaint or accident, the employer is not cited for violations if those violations are prompted corrected.

Federal law, though, does not require OSHA to inspect every workplace periodically. MSHA is required by law to inspect all underground mines in their entirety once every quarter. Surface mines must be inspected in their entirety twice per year.

Passage in 1969 of required inspections of coal mines is generally credited with greatly reducing that industry's mining deaths, from hundreds every year to an average of 30 per year from 2001-2005. When inspections of metal and non-metal mines became mandatory, deaths dropped from 134 in 1977 to 23 last year.

Industry lobbyists tried in the mid-1990s, when Republicans controlled Congress, to combine MSHA with OSHA and eliminate mandatory mine safety inspections. During the administration of George W. Bush, then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski proposed a similar plan for "focused inspections" of bad-actor mining operators and fewer reviews of companies with strong safety records. The National Mining Association also floated the idea in 2006, just two months after 12 miners died in the Sago Mine Disaster.

Bumbico's proposal may not go quite as far as previous industry efforts. But it received a similarly cool reception from safety advocates and House Democrats.

"Mine owners policing themselves is not the answer," said Aaron Albright, spokesman for ranking committee Democrat George Miller of California.

Albright noted that U.S. Government Accountability Office reviews of the OSHA VPP program diverted scarce resources without any real evidence of improved worker safety.

"Clearly, many are pushing to police themselves again because they want fewer inspections now that MSHA is finally doing their required quarterly or semiannual inspections," Albright said. "The sheer number of continuing high-profile negligent behavior by some shows that the industry can't be relied upon to police themselves."

Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, said the industry proposal defeats the purpose of having strong laws on the books to protect miners.

"This industry has demonstrated over and over again that it is incapable of policing itself in the long run," Smith said.

"They can say all the nice things they want about compliance and a new focus on safety and how they are all being punished because of a few bad apples, but its important to remember that even today's so-called good apples have history of being bad apples. Without strong and continuous enforcement -- and the threat of penalties that have teeth -- history tells us that there won't be many good apples left."

MSHA chief Joe Main did not respond to a request for comment on the industry's proposal. But when he was UMW safety director, Main testified against similar proposals at a July 1998 congressional hearing.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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