Senators Say Budget Cuts Have Left Mines Unsafe

Bloomberg News
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) blamed budget cuts at the federal mine safety oversight agency for 14 deaths in two incidents this month at coal mines in West Virginia.

"Why was it that the federal agency charged with the safety of those miners failed to protect them?" Byrd asked yesterday at a Senate hearing on mine safety.

Congress cut the annual budget at the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration to $115.4 million in 2006 from $118.9 million in 2003, resulting in a reduction of 183 safety inspectors and office staff, the senators said. President Bush's annual budget proposed a $3.1 million increase in the agency's funding for the 2006 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, though Congress imposed a $2.8 million cut.

Byrd said he told Bush in a telephone call over the weekend that further budget cuts in mine safety oversight must be avoided. The administration's 2007 budget is due to be delivered to Congress on Feb. 7.

Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the mine safety agency, said he warned Republican leaders he would not support a 2007 budget that does not "adequately" fund U.S. health, labor and education programs.

"Congress determined in 1969 that this industry could not police itself" and created the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "And in 2001 we put the coal industry in charge," Roberts said, referring to Bush's first year in office.

David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety, defended the agency, saying unsafe portions of one of the West Virginia mines, the Sago Mine, were closed after multiple violations.

Dye rejected Byrd's insinuation that mining regulations had been eased by what the senator called "cronyism" between government officials and company executives.

"There's no cronyism between me and anyone in the industry," Dye said. "With respect to the agency itself, particularly our coal mine division, I will have to say that all of our inspectors have five years' experience in the industry. They're all miners."

Specter asked Dye to report back on how the budget cuts had affected its operations.

Twelve miners died at the Sago Mine, about 140 miles south of Pittsburgh, after an underground explosion on Jan. 2 that may have been sparked by a gas buildup and a lightning strike. It was 11 hours after the explosion before a rescue team entered the Sago shaft to search for the miners, who had breathing filters designed to last only one hour.

Two miners were found dead over the weekend after a fire broke out Thursday at the Aracoma Coal Co. mine, near Mellville, about 40 miles southwest of Charleston.

The Sago Mine, owned by billionaire investor Wilbur Ross's International Coal Group Inc., was cited for a total of 208 federal safety violations last year, up from 68 in 2004, according to the Labor Department.

The Aracoma mine is owned by Massey Energy Co., based in Richmond, the fourth-largest U.S. coal producer.

The West Virginia state legislature approved legislation yesterday to require more oxygen supplies for miners, a rapid-rescue response and other safety measures.

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