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Senate’s Proposed Budget Increase for Mine Safety Is a Start; More Needed to Address Growing Backlog of Cases

Aug. 5, 2009

Senate’s Proposed Budget Increase for Mine Safety Is a Start; More Needed to Address Growing Backlog of Cases

Statement of Christine Hines, Consumer and Civil Justice Counsel, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a modest step Tuesday in recognizing the unprecedented increase in mine safety cases pending before the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission. While recommending a $2 million increase in the commission’s budget is a start, that amount is not nearly enough to clear the current backlog of 13,000 cases, which is expected to grow to 20,000 at the end of next year.

The Senate committee acknowledged the astounding surge in cases and noted that the cause is due mostly to the recent, dramatic increase in mine operators contesting citations issued by the Mine Safety & Health Administration. Indeed, in 2006, only 7.4 percent of penalties, or about 10,000 cases, were contested. By the end of 2008, a full 23 percent of the cases, or about 199,000 cases, were contested by mining companies. We are also pleased that senators specifically designated the added funding for hiring more judges and support staff in an effort to reduce the backlog.

The mining commission is a small agency, but it plays a key role in ensuring that mine workers around the country remain safe while doing their jobs. This adjudicating body mostly determines penalties against mine operators that violate safety standards and endanger miners’ lives. The penalties provide critical incentives for mine operators to account for their miners’ safety and to comply with the law, especially the improved safety standards that Congress mandated under the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (Miner Act). As these cases have gone unresolved due to the tremendous backlog, mine operators that have been cited with safety violations have been let off the hook from paying the appropriate penalties. So, while we are grateful that Congress has noticed the difficulties facing the mining commission, we urge it to provide the agency with the resources needed to fulfill its mission.

READ the letters Public Citizen sent to Congress and President Obama drawing attention to the commission’s lack of resources.