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Mining death on rise in 2002 Feds quietly stop work on

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2002
Page: P1A
Byline: Ken Ward Jr. Since the first of the year, 15 miners have died on the job in the United States - three times the number killed in American mines at the same time last year.

So far in 2002, six coal miners have died on the job across the country. That's compared to one nationwide during the same period last year.

In metal and nonmetal mines, nine workers have died so far this year.

At the same point in 2001, four had been killed, according to federal government records.

At the same time, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration quietly halted work on more than a dozen new mine safety regulations.

The proposals, all made during the Clinton administration, concern issues that range from training requirements to mine ventilation plans to accident investigations, according to a December Federal Register notice.

Earlier this month, President Bush also proposed to cut MSHA's overall budget and slash the agency's resources for coal mine safety enforcement.

The budget for coal enforcement would be cut by 6 percent to $117 million, and MSHA's overall budget by 1.5 percent to $266 million.

"The enforcement strategy in 2003 will be an integrated approach that links all actions to preventing occupational injuries and illnesses," the administration said in its budget report to Congress.

This year's mine fatality record is not out of line with numbers in some other recent years. Through Feb. 21, there were 11 fatalities in 2000, 14 in 1999 and 13 in 1998, according to MSHA records.

But just last month, the Bush administration touted the record low of 72 total mining deaths in 2001.

"Last year was an intensely difficult one for this nation as a whole, but we in the mining community have much to be grateful for," Dave Lauriski, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, said in a late January speech.

The metal and nonmetal sector accounted for much of the industry's safety success in 2001. Metal and nonmetal mines produce things like gold, salt, copper, sand and gravel.

Last year, the sector recorded 30 fatal accidents, down from 47 in 2000 and from the previous low of 30 in 1994.

In West Virginia, there had been just one fatality so far this year.

But on Wednesday afternoon, a roof fall in Greenbrier County killed one miner, and trapped another underground, said Pat Brady, district manager for MSHA. To date, MSHA officials have said little publicly about this year's fatalities. On Wednesday, Lauriski did not respond to a request for an interview.

Lauriski has said his goal is for the mining industry to reduce fatal accidents by 15 percent each year.

Before taking over MSHA last year, Lauriski spent 30 years working in the coal industry.

The agency Web site says that Lauriski was the general manager of Energy West Mining Co., a division of PacifiCorp.

"Under his leadership, Energy West was recognized for its position as one of the largest underground coal producers in the United States and, most importantly, as one of the safest in the United States," the Web site says. Lauriski was also director of health, safety, environmental and governmental affairs for Interwest Mining Co. from 1993 to 1995, the site says.

The Web site does not mention that Lauriski was director of health, safety and training for Utah Power and Light Co. in 1984. On Dec. 19 of that year, a fire at the company's Wilberg Mine in Orangeville, Utah, killed 27 miners.

Joe Main, safety and health director for the United Mine Workers union, said his organization was concerned about the administration's moves.

"They have said pretty straight-forwardly that what they plan to do is narrow down the list to what they think they can handle," Main said.

"In one respect, that makes some sense. But it does raise some concerns with us about what [Lauriski's] overall strategy is going to be.

"We've been working on some of these regulations for years, and the time has come to get some of these things done." To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.

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