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Mining Safety Rules Got the Shaft, Workers Union Says

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 16, 2004; Page E01

J oseph A. Main, health and safety director of the United Mine Workers of America, figures he has his work cut out for him.

For the past four years, the union has been dissatisfied with decisions the Bush administration's Mine Safety and Health Administration has made to place former industry officials in high-ranking jobs and eliminate long-standing regulatory proposals.

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"They pretty much pulled off all the progressive regulations already," said Main, a former miner. "Those regulations should not have been withdrawn and make the difference between whether miners are protected or not."

Among the regulatory proposals no longer being worked on, some of them spanning years and administrations, are those addressing safety issues with self-rescue respiratory devices for miners, the shortage of mine rescue teams, problems with huge trucks that are the leading cause of mine fatalities, fire-resistant conveyer belts in mines, and improved air quality rules.

Since the new MSHA team came to office, 17 of the 26 rules that were in some stage of completion were taken off the agency's regulatory agenda. The union wants more attention focused on safety rules at mines since coal production is expected to increase under the Bush administration to fill the nation's energy needs.

David D. Lauriski, the assistant secretary of Labor in charge of MSHA, declined requests for an interview. In a written statement he said: "Priorities change in every administration and year to year our priorities have been and will be focused on improving the safety and health of miners."

The agency insists that what really counts in this debate is the reduction of injuries and fatalities. It cited a downward trend in the numbers over the past three years, saying that validated its strategy of emphasizing training, education and compliance assistance to companies in place of rulemaking as the main response to problems.

An MSHA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that the Clinton administration also pulled rules off the regulatory agenda it inherited and, in some cases, said it would pursue non-regulatory alternatives. An air quality rule was ready to be issued, but Clinton regulators never followed through, the official said.

In all, the Clinton administration put out 10 rules, and the Bush administration finalized seven during its first three years in office, the official said.

Three of the Bush initiatives have sparked disagreement among the industry, union and agency. The mine workers oppose industry-supported proposals allowing use of diesel electrical generators in mines and the use of high-voltage equipment. The union also opposes a rule that allows air that comes through conveyor belt entries at high speeds to be brought to the face of the mine.

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