Report Rips Bush Administration for Mine Safety Record

A report prepared by the Democratic staff of the House Education and the Workforce Committee shows that the Bush administration has "systemically undermined" mine safety and health "by putting the interests of mine operators ahead of rigorous enforcement of the law," according to U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

The report which was prepared at the request of Miller contends President George W. Bush has stacked the Mine Safety and Health Administration with industry insiders, has sought budget and staff cuts at MSHA and has nixed proposed safety and health standards while implementing "industry-favored changes."

"This report clearly shows that the Bush administration has put mine workers' lives at greater risk by putting the interests of mining company executives ahead of the enforcement of critical workplace health and safety rules," said Miller, who is the senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "Most troubling, the administration has scrapped or delayed 18 regulations that would have improved health and safety conditions in mines without putting onerous burdens on mine operators. These actions represent a shocking abdication of the administration's responsibilities to protect the lives of American mine workers."

Report: Did Weakening of Safety Rule Contribute to Alma Mine Tragedy?

Among the report's assertions:

  • Between 2001 and 2005, the Bush administration delayed, weakened or withdrew a total of at least 18 regulations intended to protect the health and safety of mine workers. At least three of those regulations were intended to boost safety measures that could have directly affected the outcomes at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia, according to the report.
  • The Bush administration adopted a regulation that weakens safeguards against fires on conveyor belts in mines. At the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 near Mellville, W.Va., investigators suspect a conveyor belt fire may have been to blame for the deaths of two miners in January.
  • From 1996 to 2000, the Clinton administration proposed fining coal operators the maximum fine allowed under law a total of 118 times, according to an analysis of MSHA data. From 2001 to 2005, the Bush administration proposed the maximum allowable fine just 37 times.
  • A number of President Bush's top political appointees to MSHA previously worked in executive or management operations at mining companies.
  • Since 2001, the Bush administration has underfunded and understaffed MSHA. For example, the coal enforcement division lost 190 full-time positions between 2001 and 2005 due to budget cuts.

Miller Reiterates Calls for House Hearings on Mine Safety

Miller used the report as ammunition to ask for immediate House Education and the Workforce Committee hearings into the cause of the disasters at the Sago and Alma mines, a call he first issued in early January. Miller said that MSHA, in light of its troubling track record on oversight and enforcement issues, "cannot be trusted to investigate itself." He said that a congressional investigation is urgently needed to learn what actions must be taken to prevent future tragedies.

"Only Congress can properly review these tragedies," Miller said. "There is absolutely no legitimate excuse for the key committee in Congress to simply ignore this issue. Chairman [John] Boehner should not allow another day to pass without calling hearings."

MSHA Defends its Record

MSHA, in response to the intense scrutiny it has faced since the year began with a spate of mining deaths, says overall mining fatalities fell by 33 percent from calendar years 2000 to 2005 and fatalities in coal mines fell by 42 percent during that same period. The agency also contends that citations and civil penalties assessed went up during that period.

The report says that between fiscal years 2001 and 2006, MSHA's staff was cut by 170 employees, which it asserts is indicative of a trend toward declining staffing levels at the agency since Bush took office.

MSHA, however, says that even thought its overall numbers are down "primarily due to reductions in the administrative ranks," it has increased the number of inspectors since 2001.

"MSHA has put more resources on the front lines by reducing overhead costs," the agency says on its Web site.

MSHA acknowledges "a small percentage of the positions" at the agency currently are vacant. But the agency blames the vacancies on the government-wide problem of senior employees retiring and a dearth of younger workers to replace them.

"[The Department of Labor] is encouraging young people to enter government service," the agency says.

MSHA also notes that the Bush administration has "consistently requested increased funding for MSHA," but the House report contends that Bush's increases do not keep pace with inflation.

The report can be viewed at http://edworkforce.house.gov/democrats/pdfs/minesafetyreport.pdf.

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