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Mining safety agency proposes relaxing inspection rule for hard rock mines

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is trying to relax a hard rock mining inspections rule that was published just three days after President Barack Obama left office, by allowing examiners to do their reviews while miners are working and letting companies not record hazardous conditions if they’re immediately corrected.

The Labor Department rule proposal, which MSHA published Tuesday, aims to provide inspectors and mining companies with greater flexibility. The agency also proposed further delaying the rule's effective date to March, after already moving it from May 23 to Oct. 2.

An agency statement said the proposal “would be as protective as the existing rules” but “would reduce the regulatory burden on mine operators” and satisfy the administration’s goals to “reduce and control regulatory costs.”

The measure — applying not only to metal mines but to salt, sand and gravel, cement and other nonmetal operations — represents the latest example of how the MSHA has shifted direction under President Trump. This month the president picked former Rhino Resources chairman David G. Zatezalo, who had sparred with the agency over coal industry regulation, as its new administrator.

The National Mining Association, which has joined with other industry groups in challenging the Obama-era regulation in court, hailed the Trump administration’s action but said it didn’t go far enough. Mine workers’ representatives criticized the changes as weakening critical safety protections.

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“From our perspective, this is a step in the right direction,” said NMA spokeswoman Ashley Burke, adding that “additional changes are warranted to make this manageable for the industry and to improve miner safety.”

Phil Smith, who directs communications and government relations for the United Mine Workers of America, said the administration’s contention that conducting inspections after work in a mine had begun was just as protective as doing it before operations started was “completely ridiculous.”

“For MSHA to believe that conducting an exam before miners enter an area offers the same level of protection as conducting the exam while miners have already begun working in an area is mind-boggling,” Smith said in an email.

The change proposed with the new reporting exemption for quickly corrected conditions “would provide operators with increased incentives to correct these conditions promptly,” according to the MSHA.

But Smith said the measure would shield hazardous mining conditions from public scrutiny and “also would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to see trends in hazardous conditions that are occurring at the mine and to be able to take the necessary action to stop them.”

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Several industry groups, including the NMA, the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, the Portland Cement Association and the American Iron & Steel Institute, have a lawsuit challenging the 2017 rule pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. In a June 12 brief, they argue that the initial regulation “imposes substantial burdens on mine operators” and is not warranted.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has yet to prove there are “significant risks associated with the existing working place examination standard that render places of employment unsafe,” the brief states.

When MSHA originally proposed the rule, agency officials argued that they had reviewed accident investigation reports from January 2010 to mid-December 2015 and found that more than 60 percent of the fatalities at metal and nonmetal mines had received at least one citation for a violation of a required health or safety standard.