Democrats Urge Congress to Convene Hearings on Mine Safety

In the wake of the Sago Mine tragedy, two Democratic lawmakers are calling for immediate congressional hearings to look at whether the enforcement and inspection measures of MSHA and OSHA are tough enough "under current law and under current management."

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Major Owens, D-N.Y., in a letter to Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce which oversees labor issues pointed to the Sago Mine's "deteriorating safety record" and said the hearings should consider whether MSHA's current fine schedule is tough enough to deter companies from breaking safety laws.

In 2005, MSHA issued 208 citations, orders and safeguards 96 of which were serious and substantial to the Sago Mine, up from 68 in 2004. So far, MSHA has penalized the mine $24,155 for the 2005 citations; some of the penalties have yet to be assessed. Penalty amounts range from $60 to $878 per violation.

"One might expect massive penalty assessments under federal law for such a dismal record," Miller and Owens wrote. "On the contrary, the 2005 violations … resulted in just a few thousand dollars of penalties. These penalties included assessments for noncompliance with requirements related to mine ventilation plans, accumulation of combustible materials and roof support."

Letter: Congress, Bush Have Weakened MSHA

The legislators' letter expressed concerns that Congress and the Bush administration have eviscerated MSHA by cutting the agency's budget and staff and by appointing former mining industry executives to senior positions in the agency.

The proposed fiscal year 2006 budget for MSHA cuts the agency's budget by $4.9 million from the previous fiscal year, according to the two Democrats, and the MSHA staff since 2001 has been downsized by 170 positions.

The two lawmakers noted that OSHA is facing a similar proposed budget cut in FY 2006. (Note: Congress often increases the budget amount requested by the president.)

Congressional hearings also "should investigate whether the Bush administration has employed people with proper regulatory experience in leadership positions at MSHA," the congressmen said in the letter.

"Many seniors MSHA officials have come directly from the mining industry, raising concerns about their ability to oversee the industry and protect its workers," they asserted.

They mentioned that Bush's first appointment to head the agency David Lauriski was a 30-year veteran of the mining industry before coming to MSHA. Lauriski, who resigned Nov. 12, 2004, served in various management positions in the mining industry, including stints as the EHS director for two mining companies in Utah. Lauriski also was a certified mine safety professional and a qualified MSHA inspector.

Procedure Instruction Letter Raises Questions

Miller and Owens in the letter expressed concerns "that MSHA has injected political considerations into its safety enforcement program."

The lawmakers pointed to a 2004 procedure instruction letter from Administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health Ray McKinney that asked MSHA coal mine inspectors, specialists, supervisors and district managers to provide higher-ups with drafts of their reports from fatal or serious accident investigations and copies of their proposed violations in cases where citations or orders could merit penalties of $10,000 or more.

McKinney explained in the procedure instruction letter that by involving the Division of Safety "earlier in the accident investigation/enforcement process, enforcement consistency will be enhanced, communications between headquarters and district enforcement personnel will be improved, accident prevention efforts will be better focused and potential litigation reduced."

Miller and Owens' interpretation of the letter is that it "may allow high-level administrators at MSHA who have no experience in handling on-the-ground accident investigations to inject themselves into the violation drafting process."

"Under the new procedures, the draft report and conclusion of professional investigators regarding a serious or fatal accident are now apparently subject to re-review by the Department of Labor's political appointees to determine what action, if any, to take against the mining company," Miller and Owens wrote.

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