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Obama to cut MSHA budget, focus on enforcement

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Monday proposed a slight cut in its budget for the U.S. Department of Labor's mine safety efforts, but said it plans to focus limited resources on safety and health enforcement.

In its proposal for the 2013 financial year, the White House recommended reducing overall funding for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from $373 million to $372 million.

MSHA said it would be shifting resources within the agency, to spend $2.9 million more next year on enforcement of safety and health standards in the coal industry and $1.8 million more on inspections of non-coal mines.

"MSHA is strategically targeting its resources to ensure that it can carry out the required functions of the Mine Act to assure the safety and health of our nation's miners," MSHA chief Joe Main said during a labor department Internet "chat" about the budget proposal.

Under the proposal, MSHA would reduce spending on mostly non-enforcement branches that focus on education and training, information resources and program administration.

But the agency would also cut spending on its newly combined office that handles penalty assessments and collections, special investigations that look for potential criminal violations and reviews of how well MSHA is doing its job.

MSHA would also cut $1 million and 17 positions from the division that reviews key mine operator plans for ventilating and controlling the roof of underground mines.

Independent audits and government reviews have linked inadequate MSHA plan reviews to several recent mine disasters, and questions persist about how well MSHA handled Massey Energy ventilation plans prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

MSHA said in budget documents that the plan review resource cuts would slow the agency's approval of industry plans, but still meet its "performance goals."

"Every budget activity supports functions that prevent death, disease and injuries from mining, but MSHA considers effective enforcement a top priority and proactive strategy to ensure workplaces in the mining industry are safe and healthy," administration officials said in a "budget justification" provided to congressional committees.

Last year, in the wake of the 29 deaths at Upper Big Branch, the Obama administration proposed a 5 percent increase in MSHA's budget, to $394 million. During Obama's first year in 2009, MSHA had cut back on tougher enforcement efforts, citing resource constraints, while not telling lawmakers in Congress about the problem.

MSHA's overall staffing would drop to 2,336 under the Obama proposal, down from 2,365. Congress, largely at the insistence of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., pumped more money into MSHA starting in 2006, after Bush administration cuts ate away at the agency and a series of major mining disasters rocked the industry.

This year, Obama administration officials are asking Congress to give MSHA authority to assess a fee on coal operators to recoup the costs of analyzing "rock dust" samples. Agency officials use these samples to determine if companies have spread enough crushed limestone in underground tunnels to prevent coal-dust explosions.

Main declined to answer questions about this proposal, saying details would have to be worked out in regulations MSHA would write later if Congress approves the agency's request.

MSHA also wants to increase, from $1.5 million to $2.5 million, the amount agency officials can charge companies to certify equipment as safe to be used in underground mines. Existing fees don't cover all of the costs of MSHA's Approval and Certification Center, officials said.

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


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