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UMW concerned about shutdown's safety impacts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- United Mine Workers officials are concerned about the impact of the government shutdown on the safety and health of the nation's coal miners.

Union safety officers will be stepping up their efforts at UMW-represented mines, but spokesman Phil Smith said the mine workers are especially concerned about the shutdown's potential effects at non-union operations.

"It's never good when the full weight of the government's watchdog agency can't be brought to bear to protect miners, union or non-union," Smith said in an email message.

Smith said UMW safety officials at individual mines are increasing their efforts, pointing out safety problems and pressing mine operators to correct them. If operators don't act, Smith noted, all coal miners have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

But Smith said the union is concerned that it's harder for miners at non-union operators to exercise such rights.

"We are concerned about conditions that may occur in nonunion mines where workers don't have the benefit of trained, experienced worker safety committees with the authority to take immediate action to get a dangerous situation rectified," Smith said. "If such a situation is identified in a nonunion mine and MSHA is somehow made aware of it, it is highly unlikely that any corrective action will occur until an inspector actually gets to the site, observes the violation and writes it up."

As part of the government shutdown, MSHA was scheduled to send home nearly 1,400 of its 2,355 employees nationwide. The agency inspects and enforces safety rules at coal and other mines, writes health and safety regulations and reviews certain safety plans that need federal approval before operators can mine.

MSHA chief Joe Main indicated in a shutdown contingency plan that he would focus furloughs at the agency's Arlington, Va., headquarters as part of an effort to continue as many mine inspections as possible.

About 750 MSHA inspectors -- less than half of the agency's total enforcement staff - would "perform targeted inspections which have been prioritized based on the mine's history of the hazards that put miners' lives at risk," according to the agency's contingency plan, dated Sept. 10.

"Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury," the plan said.

Under federal law, MSHA officials are supposed to conduct four complete inspections a year at every underground coal mine and two complete inspections at every surface mine.

But the agency has sometimes struggled to complete that task, most recently six years ago, following budget and staffing cuts that also preceded a series of coal-mining disasters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah that claimed 28 lives in 2006 and 2007.

MSHA's staffing and budget has been more stable since then, in large part because of large funding increases pushed by Sen. Robert D. Byrd, D-W.Va., before he died in 2011. Still, various audits and reviews found a variety of MSHA lapses that played a role in the conditions that caused the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Under MSHA's plan, only 13 of 965 employees who will remain on the job work at the agency's national office. While the agency is focused on keeping field inspectors working, the move also leaves few staffers left to work on ongoing rulemaking efforts involving black lung disease and proximity devices in underground mines.

Smith said the union is concerned that the government shutdown "will further slow down already slow rulemaking" and that "any further delay just keeps miners at risk even longer."

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


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