updated 4/12/2004 3:22:02 PM ET 2004-04-12T19:22:02

More than a dozen proposals aimed at improving health and safety standards in U.S. mines may never see the light of day under a Bush administration that is opposed to piling more regulation on the industry.

Many of the proposals, dropped from consideration by the U.S. Department of Labor over the last three years, would have added safeguards for coal, gold, silver and other miners, the federal agency’s reports show. Often cited as reasons for abandoning the plans were “resource constraints” and “changing safety and health regulatory priorities.”

The trend reflects a sweeping change in approach at the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, which now favors stepping up enforcement of existing rules over creating lots of new ones, an industry lobbying group official says.

Miners union's view
But critics say the withdrawal of the proposals is not unexpected, given what they say are the close ties between the department and the industry.

“Have I ever seen that many rules withdrawn like that? The answer is no,” said Joseph Main, head of health and safety for the United Mine Workers union. “Have I ever seen this federal agency stacked with mining industry folks the way it is? The answer to that question is no.”

Many of the withdrawn proposals -- addressing issues such as harmful chemicals and truck accidents, among others -- are key to improving conditions for miners, Main says.

They were conceived under previous administrations and designed to update government standards that in some cases have been on the books for many years, he said. One in particular sets safer exposure limits to more than 600 potentially harmful airborne substances, some linked to cancer and lung disease.

The miners union, based in Fairfax, Virginia, says the department’s connections to the industry are too tight.

David Lauriski, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, spent three decades in the coal mining industry, serving as general manager of Energy West Mining, part of utility PacifiCorp, when he left the sector in 1999, his biography says. One of his deputies, John Correll, worked for many years with Amax Coal Industries and Peabody Coal Co.

Industry defends 'culture change'
Mine safety administration spokeswoman Suzy Bohnert declined several requests for comment on the withdrawal of the proposed regulations.

But the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group, defended the Labor Department’s actions.

The mine safety administration has undergone a “culture change,” since George W. Bush became president, said Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety and health with the mining association, which represents the industry in Washington.

The administration has trimmed what it believed amounted to an unwieldy “wish list” of regulations, many of which could not realistically be put into effect, so it could devote itself to the truly important objectives, Watzman argued.

“The critic would say this administration didn’t care about protecting safety and health. Just look at the regulations they withdrew from consideration,” he said. “But that’s not fair. They withdrew because they wanted everyone to be able to focus on what the priorities were, rather than trying to guess.”

To name just one effort, Watzman said the industry is testing new technology to address black lung, a potentially fatal disease caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust.

Clinton-era official weighs in
Lauriski’s predecessor, Davitt McAteer, who served from 1994 to 2000 during the Clinton administration, said he could not recall ever pulling the plug on a regulatory proposal.

The claims of excessive proposal-making have merit, said McAteer, “but the problem is, it doesn’t address the fact these items need to be addressed in a regulatory way, and the individuals being exposed now are one step further back.”

In 2002, the union filed a lawsuit against the Labor Department over the withdrawal of a proposal designed to control exposure to hundreds of airborne substances. The plan would have updated a 32-year-old rule.

It seems they have met with at least some success, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in February that the department must proceed with the proposal, or provide an adequate explanation for not doing so.

The administration believes the substances should be dealt with one at a time, Watzman said, instead of with one swing of the bat, and it is relying on an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that threw out a similar air-quality proposal by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Another plan, aimed at increasing the number of mine rescue teams and improving efforts to prevent a disaster, was withdrawn by the mine safety administration in 2002, while a proposal to reduce accidents caused by heavy trucks also was dropped, records show. The latter was meant to prevent mishaps caused by brake failure, overloading and vehicle “blind spots,” reports show.

Still, Watzman points to statistics that show mining fatalities have decreased, to 56 in 2003 from 85 in 2000. The numbers, he said, indicate that new regulations are not always the answer to improving health and safety.

The mining industry, like other businesses, views too much government regulation as a burden on operations, and with some justification, McAteer noted. Complying with lots of rules can be time-consuming and costly.

“But there are also cases where they know darn well regulations are needed,” he said, “and enlightened companies who are serious about protecting their employees consider some regulation a very good step.”

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