CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While federal mine safety regulators last year were curtailing tougher enforcement actions because of "resource limitations," the Obama administration was telling Congress it had adequate funding to do its job.
Last week, the Department of Labor Inspector General revealed that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration excluded some potentially dangerous mines from review for "pattern of violation" enforcement orders.
In March 2009, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin instructed his staff to consider only one mine per field office and three per district office for those orders, which put operators in line for tougher sanctions. As a result, at least 10 mines with a history of repeated violations were not examined more closely and considered for these tougher sanctions.
Inspector General Elliott Lewis said his investigators discovered that MSHA officials believed "this guidance was necessary to address resource limitations."
But two months later, President Obama proposed a modest budget increase for MSHA and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said publicly that the president's budget proposal was adequate for MSHA to do its job.
"The request level will allow MSHA to enforce safety and health laws vigorously and complete its inspection mandate," Solis said in an online chat hosted by the labor department.
Then earlier this year, President Obama proposed a slight cut in MSHA's spending on coal industry safety and health enforcement. In testimony to Congress on March 23 -- less than a month before the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster -- Solis specifically told lawmakers that MSHA had plenty of money to run its pattern of violations program.
"The budget will ensure a 100 percent completion rate for all mandatory safety and health inspections, support MSHA's enhanced enforcement initiatives, which target patterns of violations, flagrant violators, and scofflaws," Solis told a House appropriations subcommittee.
Two weeks after that, on March 23, Solis repeated the same statements in a hearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee.