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July 14, 2009

Congress, Obama Urged to Address Mountain of Unheard Mining Safety Cases

Thousands of Safety Violations Still Pending Because of Lack of Funding; Agency Needs New Leadership

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Facing a backlog of more than 13,000 unheard safety cases, the federal agency responsible for ruling on mine safety violations is in urgent need of more resources and new leadership, Public Citizen said in letters sent today to President Obama and members of Congress.

Agency officials estimate that under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission’s current funding level, the commission will need at least five years to address its existing case backlog, excluding any new cases that arise during that time, according to Public Citizen’s letter.

Public Citizen is calling on Congress to increase the budget of the mine safety commission to bring it in line with other agencies that fill similar roles. For example, the mine commission’s budget is $2 million lower than that of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, despite having 6.5 times as many outstanding cases. The public interest group also is calling for Obama to replace the current chairman, a Bush administration holdover and a former attorney for the mining industry’s lobbying organization, who has done little to garner additional resources for the mining commission.

"Every day that these safety violations go unresolved, the chance that this nation will see another tragic mining accident grows," said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. "Congress rightly passed stricter mining safety regulations in 2006, but new rules and fines are useless if they are not enforced."

The pending 13,000 cases amount to a 600 percent increase since the passage of the Miner Act three years ago, the Public Citizen letter said. Congress passed the new law after a string of preventable tragedies, including the infamous January 2006 Sago coal mine explosion that trapped 13 miners below ground for two days in West Virginia. All but one of the miners died.

Prior to the explosion, the Sago mine owner was cited for numerous federal safety violations but continued to operate in a way that endangered the lives of its coal miners.

The mining safety commission needs more money to hire administrative law judges and staff to hear and decide cases, including deciding whether to impose civil penalties against mine operators who have violated safety standards.

To read the letters sent to Obama and Congress, go to http://www.citizen.org/congress/govtaccount/articles.cfm?ID=18739 and http://www.citizen.org/congress/govtaccount/articles.cfm?ID=18741.

To see a budget comparison of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, to http://www.citizen.org/documents/FMSHRC%20Chart.pdf.

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