Federal mine inspectors are issuing fewer violation notices, closing fewer mines for safety reasons and collecting less in fines at a time when fatalities from mine accidents appear to be on the rise.
Twenty miners have been killed in the coal fields since Jan. 1, compared with nine a year ago. A total of 153 miners were killed in 1981, the highest annual rate since 1975.
The Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which is required to inspect all underground coal mines four times a year, is being squeezed by budget problems just like other agencies.
Unlike everyone else, however, MSHA is also caught in a strange never-never land. A small part of its mission--inspection of sand and gravel and quarrying operations--was moved by Congress in the continuing resolution from MSHA to Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). No one knows whether or when that mission will be returned, but OSHA has it until March 31, when the continuing resolution expires.
The result: 220 MSHA sand and gravel quarrying inspectors have been furloughed since Jan. 1. Since many of them are also qualified coal inspectors, they are now beginning to "bump" less senior coal inspectors under federal personnel rules.
"I certainly emphathize with the employes who were impacted," said MSHA Administrator Ford B. Ford, an appointee of President Reagan. "That was not an administration-sponsored move."
Further, attrition and the federal hiring freeze combined to cut by 9 percent the number of coal inspectors actually on the job from 1,389 to 1,264 between the end of fiscal 1979 and fiscal 1981.
"We are losing our best inspectors to industry," according to a source in an MSHA field office. "Previously we could keep them because of the continuity of the work and the dignity of the job, but no longer.
"If you asked, 'Does that account for these disasters?' I would say I hope not, but it troubles me."
Ford said he could not be "definitive" on whether such uncertainties might have contributed to laxness in the field. "A great number of our inspectors come from coal mining and coal mining families. I would say they are doing a good job. I can't say how individuals react."
The statistical evidence is interesting, if not conclusive. It shows that MSHA coal inspectors issued 129,921 citations for violations in fiscal 1980, but only 108,914 in fiscal 1981, a drop of 16 percent.
Orders--where an inspector literally closes a mine or a section of a mine or prohibits use of a piece of equipment until a hazard is corrected--dropped from 5,270 to 4,787, or 9 percent, from one fiscal year to the next.
Assessments--civil penalties paid by mine operators--dropped from $19.5 million in calendar 1980 to $14.2 million in calendar 1981, or 27 percent.
The General Accounting Office, at the request of Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), is three weeks into an investigation of whether MSHA is, in fact, performing the inspections the law requires.
Miners in Rahall's district told him that the Logan, W.Va., MSHA office was not conducting the required number of inspections, according to Rahall spokesman Michael Serpe. Rahall confirmed that charge from MSHA's own statistics, Serpe said, and asked for the GAO probe. "The fact that mine inspections are not being carried out is a travesty of the law that we in Congress worked hard to implement," Rahall said.
MSHA's Ford said that "from the information we've been able to glean, those inspections required by the Coal Mine and Safety Act are being carried out to the extent those mines are available for inspection." Mines regularly move in and out of production, he said, and if they are out of production there is nothing to inspect.
Ford said that MSHA's inspectors inspect "100 percent of those mines available," but only 92 percent of all 5,700 coal mines because of availability problems. Labor Department statisticians said that the number of inspections that may have been missed (depending on whether the mine was really open or not) jumped from 485 in fiscal 1980 to 887 in fiscal l981.
The switch from MSHA to OSHA of sand, gravel and stone inspections has the immediate result of removing thousands of small operators from the burden of federal inspection because OSHA is not permitted to inspect firms with fewer than 10 employes unless there is a complaint or a reported accident.
While the resolution transfers about 162,000 protected workers at 12,395 operations from MSHA to OSHA, the inspectors remain on furlough. About 86 percent of the sand and gravel and two-thirds of the quarry operators will be exempt from OSHA enforcement barring a reported accident or complaint, OSHA spokeman Jim Foster said.
The National Sand and Gravel Association was able to build enough support in Congress to win at least temporary freedom from MSHA in the continuing resolution. However, MSHA statistics show, sand, gravel and quarrying operations have accounted for about 50 percent of the fatalities in the non-coal mining industry. Deaths in the non-coal mining industry dropped steadily from 234 in 1972 to an all-time low of 83 last year.
Ford has reorganized MSHA to place education and training staffs under the direct supervision of district managers instead of under Washington. That has resulted in the closing of some MSHA offices in the field, Ford said, but does not mean that MSHA's presence is diminished in any way.
"There has been no message to us to lessen regulatory enforcement," Ford said.