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Union: Mining rules shafted

By Cindy Skrzycki
The Washington Post

Joseph Main, health and safety director of the United Mine Workers of America, figures he has his work cut out for him.

For the past four years, the union has been dissatisfied with decisions the Bush administration’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has made to place former industry officials in high-ranking jobs and eliminate long-standing regulatory proposals.

“They pretty much pulled off all the progressive regulations already,” said Main, a former miner. “Those regulations should not have been withdrawn and make the difference between whether miners are protected or not.”

Among the regulatory proposals no longer being worked on, some of them spanning years and administrations, are those addressing safety issues with self-rescue respiratory devices for miners, the shortage of mine rescue teams, problems with huge trucks that are the leading cause of mine fatalities, fire-resistant conveyer belts in mines, and improved air-quality rules.

Since the new MSHA team came to office, 17 of the 26 rules that were in some stage of completion were taken off the agency’s regulatory agenda. The union wants more attention focused on safety rules at mines since coal production is expected to increase under the Bush administration to fill the nation’s energy needs.

David Lauriski, the assistant secretary of Labor in charge of MSHA, declined requests for an interview. In a written statement he said, “Priorities change in every administration and year to year our priorities have been and will be focused on improving the safety and health of miners.”

The agency insists that what really counts in this debate is the reduction of injuries and fatalities. It cited a downward trend in the numbers over the past three years, saying that validated its strategy of emphasizing training, education and compliance assistance to companies in place of rulemaking as the main response to problems.

An MSHA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that the Clinton administration also pulled rules off the regulatory agenda it inherited and, in some cases, said it would pursue non-regulatory alternatives. An air-quality rule was ready to be issued, but Clinton regulators never followed through, the official said.

In all, the Clinton administration put out 10 rules, and the Bush administration finalized seven during its first three years in office, the official said.

Three of the Bush initiatives have sparked disagreement among the industry, union and agency. The mine workers oppose industry-supported proposals allowing use of diesel electrical generators in mines and the use of high-voltage equipment. The union also opposes a rule that allows air that comes through conveyor belt entries at high speeds to be brought to the face of the mine.

Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety, health and human resources for the National Mining Association, said the regulatory agenda the Bush administration inherited “had grown stale and old.” Some of the proposals, he noted — like one requiring flame-resistant conveyor belts — were superseded by new technology. Other problems, like bulldozers sinking into piles of coal, were addressed by design changes to the machines.

One of the new Bush rules, Watzman said, formally approved ventilation systems that the agency was already granting to companies through petitions. In some cases, the new rules were made possible by better air monitoring in the mines, which can quickly signal when there is a problem, he said.

Some of the disagreements spilled over into court and the Congress.

The Mine Workers challenged in court the agency’s decision not to pursue the air-quality rule, for example. The agency responded that comments on the rule were 12 years old, that MSHA had changed its priorities, and that the rule might conflict with another court decision concerning a similar Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule.

In February, the federal court of appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled the agency did not have an adequate explanation for withdrawing the rule and told it to try again. The union also is challenging the new conveyor belt ventilation rule in court.

Another controversy erupted over the agency’s withdrawal of a Clinton-era rule addressing coal dust, which causes black lung disease and has killed thousands of miners.

Lauriski, formerly general manager of Energy West Mining Co. in Utah, one of the largest underground coal producers, offered a replacement rule. It would have allowed an increase in coal dust, to be offset by miners wearing protective breathing helmets, rather than investing in better ventilation and water to tamp down the dust.

The miners took their objections to Congress, where Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., took up their cause. After a Senate hearing and passage of an amendment to an appropriations bill last summer, the agency was told to re-propose the rule and build it around the use of personal dust monitors, new technology being developed in an industry-union partnership to give continuous read-outs of dust levels.

“The whole (administration) proposal was aimed at having miners wear these ‘Star Wars’ helmets and breathe through that,” which the miners opposed, a Rahall spokesman said.

There has also been disagreement over the number of mine deaths. Fatalities in coal mines dropped to 23 this year, from 30 last year and 42 in 2001. Deaths at all mines decreased to 44 this year, from 56 last year and 72 in 2001. Injuries at mines also have been steadily decreasing.