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More Money for Mine Safety

by Kiren Gopal

On Tuesday, Public Citizen sent letters to members of Congress and the President, urging more funding to address a startling backlog of cases at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.  The commission is an independent adjudicative agency that decides disputes involving the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), mine operators, and employees.  Since the 2006 mine tragedies in West Virginia and Kentucky, and Congress’ response in the form of the MINER Act, the mining industry has disputed safety violations and civil penalties at an unprecedented rate.  Most of the public’s focus on improving mine safety has remained on MSHA, the enforcement agency.  The commission has not received the requisite attention – and now is experiencing a build up of 13,000 cases, which is expected to balloon to nearly 20,000 by the end of 2010.  

The commission is in desperate need of more administrative law judges and staff, yet the current chairman, a former attorney for the National Mining Association, has failed to request the funding necessary to carry out the agency’s duties.  By way of comparison, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which has a similar function, has $2.5 million more in current funding while the mine safety commission has 20 times the number of cases.  In the meantime, as thousands of these cases languish, mine operators are off the hook from paying their penalties for maybe years, until their cases are decided.  By contesting and thus avoiding penalties due to the unprecedented delays, mine operators have less of an incentive to take extra safety measures. 

The relatively small amount of money necessary to get the commission functioning properly would be money well spent.  Common sense regulations and fines keep the industry accountable and ensure the workplace safety of America’s miners.  Congress should increase funding for the commission and President Obama should appoint a new chairman to get the agency back on track.