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Published: Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Page: 3A
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

President Bush is proposing to cut federal spending on coal-mine safety enforcement by about 6.5 percent, according to a new budget plan released Monday.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's coal enforcement spending would be slashed by $10 million, to $145 million, under the president's proposal for the 2009 financial year.

MSHA officials said the cuts result from roughly $20 million in one-time expenditures - for everything from inspectors' overtime to new computers - during the current budget year that aren't needed next year.

But the cuts come after two years of increased focus on mine safety following the January 2006 Sago Mine disaster, the Aracoma Alma Mine fire, the Darby Mine disaster in Kentucky and last year's Crandall Canyon disaster in Utah.

MSHA has been scrambling to implement the 2006 Miner Act, to catch up on required quarterly underground mine inspections and figure out how thousands of safety citations were never assesses required monetary fines.

Along with the coal budget cuts, MSHA spending for industry training programs, agency technical support and information resources will be cut, according to White House budget documents made public Monday.

"It is absolutely absurd that the president is attempting to cut MSHA's budget while Congress is trying to help the agency back on its feet - absolutely absurd," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

The MSHA budget proposals were part of the president's spending plan for the 2009 financial year, which runs from Oct. 1, 2008, through Sept. 30, 2009.

In a news release, MSHA chief Richard Stickler contrasted the 2009 proposal to the president's 2008 financial year request. That comparison makes the new proposal look like an increase of $19 million, or 6 percent.

But lawmakers, led by Byrd, increased MSHA's budget for the current 2008 financial year from Bush's proposed $313.5 million to nearly $334 million.

So the real comparison between current year spending and Bush's proposal amounts to a cut from $334 million to about $332 million, or about 0.6 percent.

Among other things, Congress this year gave MSHA $10 million in new money to pay overtime and travel so that inspectors could catch up on required quarterly reviews of underground coal mines. Largely because of previous Bush staffing cuts, MSHA since 2006 fell far behind on these inspections, especially in Southern West Virginia.

Stickler said that money wouldn't be needed next year, because new MSHA inspectors had been hired, and their pay and benefits were included in Bush's budget.

"This budget proposal demonstrates a strong commitment to mine safety and would provide MSHA with vital resources it needs to help protect miners' safety and health," Stickler said.

An MSHA slide show indicated that Bush budget proposals for MSHA had increased every year since the president took office in 2001.

But, when the budget proposals are adjusted for inflation and compared to actual spending levels enacted by Congress, Bush actually proposed cuts in the agency's budget every year between 2002 and 2006, according to a House Labor Committee report.

In 2007 and 2008, Bush proposed increases in MSHA spending in the wake of the Sago disaster and other major mining accidents.

The only area where MSHA's budget would increase under Bush's 2009 proposal is for metal and non-metal mine inspectors. Bush proposed to hire 55 new inspectors for those sectors, officials said.

"I just cannot see how in the blazes this administration can continue to be so dunderheaded when it comes to how its budget cuts affect the lives of the American people," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.

"For years, MSHA's budget was slashed and the numbers of inspectors dropped," Rahall said. "As a result, conditions in the mines grew worse and the toll of miners who died on the job climbed.

"The president should be ashamed to send a budget to Capitol Hill that cuts funding for mine safety enforcement when so many mines in my district went without full quarterly inspections last year and the fines for hundreds of violators have fallen through the cracks."

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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