Coal Tattoo

Coal miners and the Paul Ryan budget

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Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan gives “thumbs up” to supporters as he arrives for a campaign rally in a bus on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012 at Valley View Campgrounds in Belmont, Ohio. Ryan talked about economic conditions and the coal industry. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

We’ve heard a lot from Gov. Mitt Romney and his Republican running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, about coal miners this election season. Just last weekened, Rep. Ryan was in the coal country of southeastern Ohio proclaiming:

One thing Belmont County can do, if you head to early voting at your Belmont board of elections the one thing you can do is elect a man named Mitt Romney, who will end this war on coal and allow us to keep these good-paying jobs…

… We are losing thousands of coal jobs; we have a 100 coal plants that are scheduled to close.

Let’s assume for a moment that Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan can stop the market forces that are really behind the coal industry’s decline, and save all of the coal jobs that the industry has been shedding since the first of the year. Experts don’t believe that’s the case, but let’s just assume it is for the sake of this blog post.

After saving all of these coal jobs, exactly what sort of working conditions would Rep. Paul Ryan want miners to have? Of course, coal miner safety and health isn’t something we’ve heard either the Romney-Ryan ticket or President Obama talk much about this election, even when they visit coal country to court swing-state undecided voters.

But we do know a few things about Rep. Ryan’s record in Congress on miner health and safety matters.

For example, two years ago, Rep. Ryan was among the Republicans who helped defeat an effort to resurrect a coal-mine safety reform bill put together after the deaths of 29 workers at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was at the time chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor and was trying to get the bill through in December 2010, after the mid-term election and before the Republicans took over the House. Miller explained the bill’s importance this way:

Current law on “patterns of violations” has so many loopholes that it invites delays and allows some coal mine operators to game the system.

Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine was a perfect example of an operator repeatedly skirting the law and putting workers’ lives in the crosshairs.

The Upper Big Branch mine was subject to 515 violations and 54 withdrawal orders in 2009, more than any other mine in the country. Red flags were waving about this mine’s repeated unwarrantable failures.

And yet, because Massey indiscriminately appealed many of these violations, it evaded stronger sanctions that would have improved conditions and saved lives.

The bill sets clear and fair criteria to identify mines with significant safety problems and eliminate the incentives for mine owners that game the system.

Had this been in place, I believe the 29 miners who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch would be alive today.

Of course, since the took power, the Republicans have blocked mine safety reform legislation from going anywhere in Congress.

Perhaps even more telling is how Rep. Ryan’s much-talked-about budget proposal would impact funding for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Back in March, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis discussed the impacts on worker safety agencies from the Ryan Budget and the budget “sequester”  in testimony to Congress, saying:

Similarly, the estimated 7.8 percent reduction in funding required by a sequester would result in a reduction of over $136 million for our worker protection agencies This would have a significant impact on our efforts to ensure safe and healthy workplaces, and to ensure that workers get the wages and benefits to which they are entitled These reductions would likely impact our most vulnerable workers just as we are emerging from an economic recession.

An analysis of the Ryan Budget by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Democratic staff is more specific:

Assuming the cuts demanded in the Ryan budget are distributed evenly across-the-board in the discretionary non-defense accounts, MSHA would experience a 5.4 percent cut in 2013, and a 19 percent cut in 2014, when compared to the 2013 cap for non-defense discretionary spending.

Assuming those cuts then result in comparable cuts to FTE’s evenly across-the-board, MSHA would lose 22 coal mine inspectors in 2013 (5.4 percent of 411 total inspectors), and another 78 (19 percent of 411 inspectors) in 2014, dropping the coal inspectors from 411 to 311 nationwide by 2014. That’s even less than they had at the lowest ebb of the Bush years (2006). In 2006, the year of the Sago mine disaster which prompted the rebuilding of the agency, there were 326 coal inspectors.

Now, we all know what happened when the Bush administration slashed MSHA’s budget and gutted the agency’s staff: The Sago Mine Disaster, followed by the Aracoma Mine fire, followed by the Kentucky Darby Mine Disaster, followed by the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster, followed by the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

It’s been well documented how the Bush cuts crippled MSHA (see here, here and here, just for example), making it impossible for the agency to complete legally mandated inspections aimed at protecting the safety and health of the men and women who work so far — and who political leaders (especially Gov. Romney and Rep. Ryan) are now professing to care so much about.

Here’s what Rep. Miller had to say this week about how the Ryan Budget would impact coal miner health and safety:

The Ryan budget doesn’t keep faith with our nation’s workers and coal miners. It would have put miners’ lives at greater risk from mine owners who operate outside of the margins of safety. But they didn’t stop there. For two years, House Republicans have blocked stronger laws in response to the Upper Big Branch tragedy and tried to overturn new protections to prevent black lung. Congress should be working to improve miners’ safety and health, not giving unscrupulous mine operators a pass to put workers’ lives at risk.