Coal Tattoo

Shutdown: Inspections cut, permit reviews slowed

Budget Battle

A sign is posted on a barricade in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama’s health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As everyone knows by now, the federal government is in the process of closing down for reasons that The Guardian probably explained most clearly:

A shutdown of the US federal government, the first in nearly two decades, was looming close on Monday night as Congress careered toward a midnight deadline with little prospect of a deal to avert the crisis caused by a determined bloc of rightwingers in the House of Representatives.

Today’s Gazette story localizing the impacts, Shutdown would bring furloughs, closures to W.Va., explains some of the more important coal-related impacts:

Under a shutdown, active staff at labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration would be cut from 2,355 to 966. MSHA, though, would continue “to perform certain activities which, if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation’s mines.

But instead of performing legally mandated regular inspections at all of the nation’s underground and surface mines and mining facilities, MSHA inspectors would visit only certain operations.

“MSHA will perform targeted inspections at mines which have been prioritized based on the mine’s history of the hazards that put miners’ lives at risk,” agency chief Joe Main said in his contingency plan, dated Sept. 10. “Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury.”

Main said that “if unforeseen emergencies, such as a mine disaster” occurred, additional employees would be identified to work.

 You can read more yourself in the shutdown contingency plans for MSHA, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other agencies.

Budget Battle

I’ve seen a few Republicans and coal industry backers who seem pleased by all of this, citing the fact that the government shutdown will hit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency especially hard, sending home 94 percent of the agency’s employees.

It’s true that the shutdown will slow the work on important EPA regulatory efforts like the administration’s climate change action plan and its reductions in coal-fired power plant carbon pollution. But the Sierra Club is exaggerating when it says the shutdown means there will be “no cops on the beat against toxic pollution.”   Remember that in most states, as in West Virginia, the majority of inspections and enforcement actions involving environmental protection are done by state agencies like the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Of course, there’s no question that the shutdown means far less oversight of agencies like WVDEP by DEP and OSMRE — and there’s a strong argument to be made the less oversight isn’t exactly what we need.

At the same time, it’s kind of funny that coal industry supporters are so excited about EPA being shut down. Because it’s not like this means that coal operators are suddenly going to be getting Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permits for mountaintop removal more quickly than they have been … keep in mind that the shutdown impacts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well. I asked a Corps spokesman, Chuck Minsker, how the shutdown would affect the Huntington District’s processing of such permits and this is what he told me this morning:

We’re going to be a on a skeleton crew, so there are only going to be about two people in regulatory. It’s going to slow them down tremendously. Everything is slowing down.

And not for nothing, but a government shutdown also means that MSHA and the administration basically stop work on key life-saving mine safety and health rules like those to end black lung disease and require proximity devices in underground coal mines.