Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Bush administration ‘weak link,’ Byrd says

Bush administration ‘weak link,’
Byrd says
Mine safety mission diluted, senator says

Charleston Gazette - WV,
October 9, 2007

The Bush administration has been the “weak link” that has eroded mine safety protections in the coal industry, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday.
Byrd continued his criticism of the administration’s mine safety policies during a visit to the federal Mine Safety and Health Academy near Beckley.
In a prepared statement, Byrd said that coal miners rely on a “chain of command” — elected officials, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors and the administration — to protect their health and safety.
“This chain of responsibility is only as strong as its weakest link,” Byrd said. “And I am here today to draw attention to the fact that this administration has been the weak link.
“They have allowed the capacity of MSHA to grow weaker,” Byrd said. “We don’t have enough inspections, or inspectors.
“They have allowed the core mission of safety to be diluted by a preoccupation with compliance consulting,” Byrd added. “They have not realized that weakening mine safety ultimately weakens the whole mining industry.”
Byrd continued his criticism after last week’s disclosure by MSHA that it is behind on completing required inspections at coal mines across the country.
New MSHA data show that the inspection problems started during the 2006 federal financial year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2005, through Sept. 30, 2006.
That year, MSHA’s inspection completion rate dropped from 99 percent nationwide in financial year 2005, to 95 percent nationwide, the lowest in more than a decade.
In MSHA District 4, which covers Southern West Virginia, the completion rate dropped from 98 percent in the 2005 financial year to 82 percent in 2006, the new agency data show.
MSHA has been under fire from Byrd and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., over inspection lapses at mines in Southern West Virginia. Last month, the Gazette reported that MSHA was behind schedule to complete inspections at two Southern West Virginia mines where workers were killed. The agency is behind schedule to complete required quarterly inspections at 60 percent of the active underground mines in Southern West Virginia, MSHA records show.
Since 1969, federal regulators have been required to inspect all underground mines in their entirety at least four times per year. For years, MSHA’s written policies have interpreted that as a requirement to complete regular inspections of all underground mines each quarter.
By law, strip mines must be inspected in their entirety twice a year.
Last week, MSHA chief Richard Stickler announced a “100 Percent Plan” for the agency to catch up on required inspections.
Stickler has ordered inspectors to be temporarily reassigned and for MSHA managers to authorize 46,000 hours of overtime nationwide to correct missed inspections across the country’s coalfields.
In a statement, Stickler blamed the inspection problems on “the large number of inspector-trainees replacing retired or departing inspectors.”
But those trainees were hired to fill inspection slots that were eliminated by budget and staffing cuts initiated by the Bush administration, Byrd and Rahall have noted.
“I am here today to remind all West Virginians that there is an ideological struggle taking place between the administration and those with genuine concern for the safety of America’s coal miners and their families,” Byrd said Monday