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Accidents, Obama Administration Bring Tougher Mine Safety Enforcement

January 10, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In the last several months, officials at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have taken a much harder line than earlier with companies they say are endangering coal miners. According to Ellen Smith, the owner and managing editor of Mine Safety And Health News, the trend began with the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia five years ago and the accidents that followed, but picked up much more momentum after the 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine last April.

"We started seeing MSHA really cracking down on mine operators after 2006 and those disasters. Now, we have the worst mining disaster in 40 years, and UBB was certainly a wakeup call."

The current head of MSHA, Joe Main, is a former union safety official who came in with the election of President Obama. According to Phil Smith (no relation to Ellen Smith), a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, it is a political appointment that has made a big difference, because in the past, enforcement became more relaxed when the issue was not in the headlines.

"Who's in charge at these agencies? We're not going to see a lessening of mine safety and health enforcement as long as Joe Main is going to be in charge at the Mine Safety and Health Administration."

New mine safety legislation proposed after the UBB accident stalled during the last session of Congress. Ellen Smith with Mine Safety And Health News says it's not likely to be revived now that Republicans control the U.S. House. And she says it's probably more important to note how the laws now on the books are applied.

"We have in place now, on the House side, pro-business members that will be overseeing MSHA, and I just don't think that we're going to see any legislation coming out. And people question whether we need it."

As an example, she cites the "pattern of violations" rule, a tool MSHA has had for years to go after repeat offenders, but has only started using in the past few months.

Some coal company executives say MSHA's new direction threatens to stifle the industry. Others argue that most mine deaths are preventable and don't keep mine companies from making a profit.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV