Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Congress: Helping MSHA Do Its Job

Congressman George Miller (D-CA) issued a report today accusing the Bush administration of putting "mine workers’ lives at greater risk by putting the of mining company executives ahead of the enforcement of critical workplace health and safety rules."
The Bush Administration has stacked the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) with mining industry insiders. The Administration has sought budget cuts and staff reductions at the enforcement agency. It has rolled back proposed safety and health regulations, while implementing industry-favored changes. It has significantly reduced the amount of major fines for mine safety and health violations, compared to the previous administration. And even while it has operated with little to no oversight from the Congress, MSHA has adopted the Bush Administration’s penchant for secrecy, refusing to fill Freedom of Information Act requests which had been routinely filled in the past. In the meantime, MSHA has also failed to ensure that the industry keeps pace with existing mine safety technologies, such as electronic tracking and communication devices and reserve oxygen chambers that could have saved lives at the Sago and Aracoma Alma mines.
The report makes three recommendations:
  • Congress must start fulfilling its oversight responsibilities. He notes that although an oversight hearing was held in the Senate last week, none have been held in the House of Representatives.

  • MSHA must act to aggressively enforce the law by halting the practice of promoting "compliance assistance" at the expense of actual law enforcement.

  • MSHA must adopt new regulations to ensure that the industry adopts safer practices and available life-saving technologies without waiting for the results of the current investigations.
We already know that American miners need and deserve the best life-saving equipment available. Such equipment includes simple tracking and communication devices used in mines in Australia and other countries around the world. It includes strategically placed rescue chambers and caches of self-contained self-rescue units, providing miners with several days of good air, not just one hour as currently required.
Miller's Press Release can be found here and the whole report here.

By the way, Miller puts out great reports, but his political predictions stink:
President Bush is likely to address the issue of mine safety in his State of the Union speech tonight and Miller warned that, based on the findings of this new report, “The public and the press should approach the President’s rhetoric on mine safety with extreme caution.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that MSHA is considering regulations that would require caches of oxygen tanks and breathing masks inside every coal mine.

The idea may have struck some miners as familiar, because it was. A similar proposal was put forward by the same regulators six years ago, only to be scrapped by the Bush administration shortly after it took office. And the oxygen caches were not the only proposed safety improvement to be withdrawn.

In all, the Bush administration abandoned or delayed implementation of 18 proposed safety rules that were in the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's regulatory pipeline in early 2001, a review of agency records shows. At least two of the dropped proposals have now been resurrected in the aftermath of deadly accidents at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia.

West Virginia's Congressional delegation isn't waiting for MSHA regulations, however. They preparing a package to send to Congress that will include requirements for rapid notification and response of mine emergencies, emergency communications and breathing equipment, higher penalties, and the creation of a science and technology office in MSHA "to expedite the introduction of the most advanced health and safety technologies into the mines."