Coal Tattoo

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This week’s bombshell from the Labor Department Office of Inspector General raises lots of questions, among them why the folks at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration didn’t previously reveal a major change to the way they implemented the Pattern of Violations program.

So far, though, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main aren’t saying anything beyond their prepared statement, which tried to blame the whole thing on a previous administration — despite the fact that the March 2009 orders to only review 1 mine per field office and no more than 3 mines per district for POV orders came after President Obama took office.

In its preliminary report, the Inspector General said MSHA made this decision based on “resource limitations.” So far, neither the IG nor MSHA nor the DOL has explained exactly what that meant.

There weren’t any major indications from the Obama administration of any resource limitations. In fact, top administration officials repeatedly said the exact opposite — to the public, the press, the mining community and Congress.

Let’s review …

In his first budget proposal, President Obama proposed only a modest increase for MSHA. And even then, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis played the numbers pretty fast and loose, trying to make the proposal look better than it really was.

Look back in history, to that Obama administration budget proposal, and a “Web chat” that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis did just two months after MSHA severely limited its POV enforcement because of these “resource limitations.”

Kathy Snyder of Mine Safety and Health News asked Solis why she didn’t bother to mention MSHA in her opening statement about the budget, and the secretary responded:

The budget includes $1.3 million and 15 FTE in new funding to strengthen the metal and nonmetal enforcement program. The request level will allow MSHA to enforce safety and health laws vigorously and complete its inspection mandate.

Someone named “Bruce” from Washington, D.C., asked Solis:

The budget presentation makes no mention of mine safety and health. Can you provide information on funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration?

She responded:

The budget includes $1.3 million and 15 FTE in new funding to strengthening the metal and nonmetal enforcement program. The request level will allow MSHA to vigorously enforce safety and health laws and complete its inspection mandate.

Yours truly asked Solis:

Why does OSHA get a 10 percent budget increase, while MSHA only gets 2 percent? And why isn’t mine safety highlighted in any of these budget materials? Is protecting the nation’s miners simply not a priority for the Department?

She responded:

Over the past several years, MSHA has received large budget increases, which have allowed the agency to step up its enforcement significantly, including the ability to conduct 100 percent of its mandatory mine inspections. On the other hand, OSHA’s budget has remained flat over the last few years. For example, between 2001 and 2009, OSHA’s staff levels fell by nine percent, while MSHA’s remained steady. In addition, the FY 2010 increase for OSHA’s state programs is the first significant increase in years.

The Obama administration’s promises that it had adequate funding to protect the nation’s coal miners were not limited to their first year in office, or to comments in a Web chat.

Consider earlier this year, when the president actually proposed a cut in the agency’s coal enforcement budget.

Less than a month before the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, Solis testified before a House budget committee:

The Budget will ensure a 100 percent completion rate for all mandatory safety and health inspections; support MSHA’s enhanced enforcement initiatives, which target patterns of violation, flagrant violators, and scofflaws; and allow MSHA to promulgate new standards related to reducing health hazards associated with exposure to coal mine dust and crystalline silica. The request also allows MSHA to continue its work to enhance mine rescue and emergency operations and will support the Department’s high priority performance goal — which targets the most common causes of fatal accidents and is aimed at reducing workplace fatalities at mining sites by five percent per year based upon a rolling five-year average.

A few weeks after that testimony, she repeated similar statements in a hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, including this now every interesting part:

The Budget will ensure a 100 percent completion rate for all mandatory safety and health inspections; support MSHA’s enhanced enforcement initiatives, which target patterns of violation, flagrant violators, and scofflaws …

It is almost impossible to believe that MSHA would not have received help if agency officials had told lawmakers — especially West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd — that it needed more money to properly review mines for patterns of violations. In large part because of Sen. Byrd, MSHA’s budget for coal enforcement has increased by 36 percent since the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006. Sen. Byrd and others have seen to it that MSHA not only got as much money as the administration asked for — but far more than that.

I have a hard time forgetting that just a few years ago, MSHA wasn’t exactly open and honest about admitting the magnitude of the problems it faced simply completing its mandatory safety inspections at underground coal mines. Agency officials tried repeatedly to downplay this issue, in the face of continued Gazette reports to the contrary. Finally, an Inspector General’s report confirmed the size and scope of the problem — citing “resource limitations” as the reason.

The next time Hilda Solis or Joe Main appears before Congress, they’re probably going to have some serious explaining to do …