Coal Tattoo

Trump dumps and delays key coal-mine safety rules

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)


Of course, we’re still waiting for President Donald Trump to let us know who he wants to have running the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

But we have seen a little taste of MSHA under Trump with this new voluntary initiative in response to the uptick in coal-mining deaths. And amid the journalism that’s focused on some of the administration’s efforts to dismantle the regulatory safety net in our country (one of the best stories was this one from ProPublica and The New York Times), this story we did at the Gazette-Mail hasn’t gotten enough attention:

The Trump administration is negotiating to settle legal challenges brought by Murray Energy and a collection of industry trade associations over a rule change meant to toughen federal coal mine safety enforcement following the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in 2010.

A federal magistrate judge in Ohio has put two similar cases — one brought by Murray Energy and the other by coal associations in Ohio and Kentucky — on hold following a joint motion by the industry plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice, representing federal mine safety regulators. The joint motion indicated the parties believe they can work out a deal that would resolve mining company objections to an Obama administration rule meant to beef up enforcement against repeat violators of standards meant to protect the nation’s miners.

“Rather than concurrently litigating and negotiating a possible settlement of the dispute, the parties are open to negotiating a mutually agreeable resolution that could avoid further litigation,” said the joint motion, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Columbus.

The joint filing indicated that lawyers for the industry and the government had met on May 1 and agreed that settlement negotiations “were sufficiently promising to warrant a stay of this litigation.”

“The parties have since discussed their commitment to a structured series of conferences to consider a negotiated resolution,’ the joint filing said.

And now,  with this week’s somewhat late release of the spring update of the Labor Department’s regulatory agenda, we can get a look at what the Trump administration is going to do with some other important MSHA rules (for a broader examination government-wide at Trump’s regulatory agenda, read this story from The Washington Post).

First, the most important thing to note — that is, important if you care about the black lung crisis that is killing our coal miners — is the MSHA rule concerning Respirable Crystalline Silica.  Last year, the Obama administration indicated that MSHA would publish a proposed rule this April.  Now, though, the Trump administration has moved this project to its list of “long-term actions” and listed the next action is “undetermined.”

A group of coal miners wave signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they wait for a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)



Second, there’s the MSHA rule on Proximity Detection Systems for Mobile Machines in Underground Mines. Now, it is true that the previous leadership at MSHA delayed its actions on this proposal quite a bit, following a decision to split the initial proximity detection proposal and run separate rules for continuous mining machines (now finalized) and other mobile equipment (not yet done).  But it’s pretty clear what the Trump MSHA is up to now that they’ve moved this rule as well to the list of “long-term actions” and are listing their next action as “undermined.”

Two other important MSHA rulemaking projects — concerning civil penalties and broad efforts to improve underground coal-mine safety (something growing out of what happened at Upper Big Branch and MSHA’s performance at that mine) — aren’t even on the long-term action list anymore … they’re gone altogether.

An MSHA effort to improve rules on refuge alternatives for miners in the event of underground explosions and fires has been delayed — from issuing a final rule in April 2017 to not issuing a final rule until April 2018. It’s worth noting that the April 2017 date was already a delay, from the previous date listed by the Obama MSHA, July 2016.

Another rule, concerning exposure to diesel exhaust in underground mines, was already delayed, during the last few weeks of the Obama administration, with a move to extend the public comment period until January 2018.