By Ken Ward Jr. Staff writer
As coal mining deaths in West Virginia increase this year, all three of the state's U.S. House members voted this week for additional cuts in the coal mine safety enforcement budget for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Reps. David McKinley, Evan Jenkins and Alex Mooney, all R-W.Va., voted in favor of a budget amendment that would have slashed funding and staff at MSHA's coal division by 10 percent for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The amendment, proposed by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., failed Wednesday night on a vote of 178-238.
"I am gratified that a majority of the House agreed with our position that we should not be cutting coal mine safety at a time when we are experiencing rising fatalities and serious injuries in America's mines, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said.
MSHA's coal enforcement budget had already been facing a $3 million cut proposed by President Donald Trump and an $8 million cut included in a House committee's appropriations bill. The $149 million proposed by the committee amounted to nearly 7 percent less than the current budget. The Meadows amendment would have cut another 10 percent from the committee's proposal.
During the House floor debate on Tuesday, Meadows said his amendment was aimed at "rightsizing the nation's coal mine enforcement agency, by reducing its budget and workforce in the wake of the coal industry's decline.
"What we have found is we have fewer mines to actually inspect, Meadows said. "It is saying, Let's rightsize this particular group.'
In response, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., warned that the additional budget cuts would leave MSHA unable to complete its required quarterly inspections of all of the nation's underground coal mines.
"We have seen what happens, my friends, when mandatory inspections are cut back and the number of experienced mine inspectors are reduced, Lowey said. "We know what happens when safety takes a back seat: People die.
Following budget cuts during the Bush administration in the early 2000s, the nation's coalfields suffered a series of mining disasters in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah. Later, MSHA admitted that it had become unable to complete its mandatory quarterly inspections at underground mines in Southern West Virginia.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., entered into the House records a letter from the UMW in which Roberts urged lawmakers to vote against the amendment.
"At a time when mining fatalities are on the rise, we should be looking for ways to increase enforcement and oversight of mining operations, not make it harder to ensure that our miners are safe, Roberts said in the letter.
On Thursday, McKinley said he voted for the Meadows' amendment because the number of coal mines in the country has dropped by more than a third, while MSHA's inspection force has "remained relatively steady.
"If there are fewer mines to inspect, it would make sense that MSHA shouldn't require the same numbers of inspectors, McKinley said through a spokesman.
Jenkins agreed, saying through a spokeswoman that the amendment would have "brought MSHA in line with current capacity.
Mooney's office did not respond to a request for comment.
In its annual budget report to Congress, MSHA acknowledged the decline in the nation's coal production and noted that it had "taken appropriate action to respond to that decline. For example, the report said, MSHA closed two districts in 2014 and 2016, and is in the process of closing a third district office. Also, MSHA already has shifted coal division staff to its metal-nonmetal division, technical support, and educational policy and development arms.
Roberts urged lawmakers to focus on improving MSHA, not cutting its enforcement budget and staff.
"We stand ready to continue to work with Congress, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the coal industry to enhance safety, Roberts said. "But cutting back on safety and health merely to encourage enhanced production puts miners at risk and should never be allowed. We have lost too many miners to ever forget that the most important resource to come out of a mine is the miner, not the coal.
Twelve coal miners have died on the job nationwide in 2017, with six of those deaths occurring in West Virginia. Mining deaths are on the rise nationally and in West Virginia, after dropping for several years following the deaths of 29 miners in the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, in Raleigh County.
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