Saturday, April 01, 2006

Mine Safety: All Talk, Little Action

Despite all the concern following the Sago mine disaster about the nation's inability to enforce mine safety rules, and promises to pass new mine safety legislation, not much is being done, according to The New Standard reporter Brendan Coyne. MSHA had promised to revamp its penalty structure,
MSHA spokesperson Dirk Fillpot told The NewStandard that the agency cannot predict when it will unveil proposed rules to revamp its penalty system. And with the maximum fine amount capped at $60,000 per violation under federal law, Fillpot said the agency has little recourse until Congress passes a bill raising that ceiling.

Even if the agency were able to issue larger fines, it may opt not to use that power. As TNS reported shortly after the Sago disaster, in 2005 MSHA issued 208 fines at the mine, with most for less than $100. In 2004, just 59 of the 64,635 citations levied at the nation’s mines were for $10,000 or more, what MSHA terms "high-dollar."
And an MSHA employee confirms that not much is happening at the agency.
"I’m working on the committee [working up new penalty rules] and it’s been stalled," the source said, adding: "We didn’t really have a real goal from the start. It was a situation where we were told, ‘Quick! Do something,’ but never told what that ‘something’ was really supposed to be."

According to the committee member, MSHA would be close to a new rule by now if [Acting Assistant Secretary David] Dye and other appointees had the will. "We’re not doing anything new," the MSHA worker said. "There’s an existing rule and we’re just tweaking it. It’s not like this should be some big, long process."
Meanwhile, progress on the federal level doesn't look much better.
With MSHA regulatory changes apparently at a stand-still, congressional attempts to impose new worker protections and more stringent penalties and enforcement are stalled in committee with no hearings scheduled.

Senators of both major parties from several states have stepped forward to sponsor the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 2006, a multi-part measure that covers equipment, enforcement and penalties.

Along with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy (D), the entire West Virginia congressional delegation introduced a version of the act on February 1. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) followed suit two weeks later with a nearly identical bill that the original sponsors signed on to.

The measures carry a slew of specific requirements governing safety regulations, compliance and penalties, including a mandate to increase the maximum single violation penalty to $500,000. By contrast, the MSHA-suggested legislation does not address equipment and safety issues, nor does it propose a specific dollar amount for the cap, according to a copy of the language provided to TNS by Fillpot, the agency spokesperson.
Maybe a few more miners need to die before people get off of their fat bureaucratic behinds.

More on the recent mine disasters here.