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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.