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