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Mine safety absent from presidential campaign's coal debate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tours the coalfields in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia, he promises to reverse Obama administration environmental regulations the industry says are costing miners their jobs.

But miners seldom hear that a Romney administration is also likely to abandon new rules and reduce safety enforcement meant to protect their lives.

As part of his campaign, the Republican nominee has embraced changes in federal practices that would block new worker safety and health standards.

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is among the GOP House leadership that has for two years blocked a coal-mine safety reform bill and threatened to end Obama efforts to fight deadly black lung disease.

And Ryan authored a federal budget plan containing budget cuts that are severe enough that critics say they would gut U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration enforcement.

"When you hear these guys talking about over-regulation, they're not just talking about environmental regulations," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. "They're talking about health and safety regulations."

Earlier this year, the National Mining Association unveiled its own program aimed at, within five years, eliminating all mining fatalities and reducing the rate of mining injuries by 50 percent.

"This is a journey we are taking together, and we look forward to the important benefits we can achieve for the entire mining community," said association President Hal Quinn.

But mining industry officials have opposed some key MSHA proposals under Obama, including rules aimed at reducing dust that causes black lung, requiring "proximity devices" to keep underground equipment from running over miners, and toughening enforcement on operators that commit a "pattern of violations." MSHA has not finalized any of those proposals, and most have been pending for more than a year.

After backing Obama in 2008, the UMW has not endorsed either candidate this election, but Smith says the union would have liked to hear both sides talk more about how they would protect miners' lives and health.

"What's the point of having a job if you're going to get killed or have a crippling injury?" Smith said.

Most mine safety watchdogs give Obama generally strong marks in many areas, but Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, says there's one simple reason the president hasn't campaigned on the issue.

"They're hesitant to say anything, because they had the largest disaster in 40 years during their time in office," McAteer said.

On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, killing 29 miners at the non-union operation.

Multiple investigation reports blamed the disaster on a deliberate effort by Massey to evade federal mine safety rules.

But the disaster also led to a long series of embarrassing disclosures about MSHA's failure to take adequate enforcement measures at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.

Republicans in Congress, with industry backing, have seized on MSHA's missteps at Upper Big Branch to argue that the agency needs to improve enforcement of existing rules before lawmakers should give it additional authority under a safety reform package promoted by the administration, congressional Democrats and the UMW.

"The strongest laws on the books will not protect miners if those laws go unenforced," said Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Eight years ago, Sen. John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign made a pitch for coalfield votes by criticizing the Bush administration for putting a mining company official in charge of MSHA and cutting the agency's budget.

Then in 2008, the UMW cited Obama's commitment to coal mine safety and health as part of the reason it endorsed the Democrat over Republican John McCain.

Obama put the UMW's longtime safety director, Joe Main, in charge of MSHA. After his confirmation in October 2009, Main announced an ambitious agenda that included a long-stalled effort to end deadly black lung disease.

A little more than five months later, though, the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up. MSHA's agenda shifted to the largest mine disaster investigation in history, and its regulatory agenda was diverted toward initiatives responding to Upper Big Branch.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said some of Obama's strongest mine safety efforts grew out of the Upper Big Branch response.

For example, MSHA has continued an effort of "impact inspections" that send multiple inspectors on surprise visits to problem mines. Agency officials say that since September 2010, the rate of serious violations is down 21 percent and the injury rate down 13 percent at mines targeted by these inspections.

"I've always felt that should be a regular part of MSHA's enforcement program," Oppegard said. "It's clearly showing dividends."

Oppegard said he's also pleased that MSHA has been more aggressive in seeking reinstatement for miners who allege they were fired for complaining about safety problems.

UMW officials say they're also pleased with a general upswing in enforcement, and with changes that have inspectors visiting mines on weekends and evening shifts, instead of just during weekday dayshifts.

But the UMW butted heads with Main over the Upper Big Branch investigation, when union safety officers picked as miners' representatives by some Upper Big Branch workers were kept out of investigation interviews and when MSHA dropped plans for public hearings on the disaster.

Administration officials said they backed off a more public investigation to avoid interfering with an ongoing criminal probe of the disaster and of broader safety issues at Massey.

In December 2011, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team secured a $209.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the Upper Big Branch Mine when it bought Massey Energy.

Goodwin agreed not to prosecute the company for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities, but required Alpha to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Unlike a Bush administration plea agreement with Massey following the deaths of two miners in 2006, Goodwin's settlement did not prohibit prosecutors from pursuing charges against any individuals -- including Massey officers, employees or agents -- who played a role at Upper Big Branch.

So far in the probe, a mine security director was convicted and one miner and one superintendent have pleaded guilty. No charges have been brought against higher-up Massey officials. Goodwin said earlier this month that more charges are expected "very shortly," and that he believes the probe will continue regardless of who wins next month's election.

Main declined requests for a detailed interview for this story. When asked during a recent visit to Charleston about his record and the prospects of a second Obama term, Main said only that "there's more work to do" on mine safety issues.

MSHA has been touting a record low mining death rate in 2011. But that figure actually applies only to all mining sectors combined. The coal-mining death rate nationwide was actually slightly lower in 2009 than last year, according to MSHA data. And through late last week, the total coal-mining deaths in 2012 were actually slightly greater than the number at the same time in 2011.

"Things haven't changed," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning think tank. "It's nice that the slip-and-fall rate has fallen by a small amount, but you need a magnifying glass to see it."

Steinzor's group is especially concerned, though, about Romney's embrace of a requiring all agencies to cap their regulatory costs, so when agencies issue a new rule, they have to eliminate an existing rule with the same or greater estimated costs.

In a recent paper, the center said such a policy would "operate as a one-way ratchet, gradually reducing safeguards over time, and it would add to the already massive procedural obstacles agencies must overcome to continue protecting people and the environment against new and emerging threats."

At the same time, other mine safety advocates are worried that the budget proposal put forth by Ryan would slash MSHA's enforcement staff back to the weakened levels prior to congressional intervention following the series of mine disasters in 2006 and 2007.

An analysis by Democratic staff from the House Education and the Workforce Committee concluded Ryan's budget proposal would eliminate 100 MSHA coal inspectors by 2014. The agency would be left with 311 coal inspectors, fewer than the 326 on staff the year of the Sago Mine Disaster, the analysis said.

"The Ryan budget doesn't keep faith with our nation's workers and coal miners," said Rep. George Miller, the committee's ranking Democrat. "It would put miners' lives at greater risk from mine owners who operate outside the margins of safety."

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


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