Stickler's for the Rules

18 miners killed this year, and safety nominee says the laws are fine

Notwithstanding the governor of West Virginia's order last week to stop coal production for safety inspections, the efforts at reducing hazardous conditions for workers, both by industry and the state and federal governments, are piecemeal. It turns out the governor's order is not an order at all but a plea, issued after 16 West Virginia workers died in recent mining accidents. The shutdown he's asking for is completely voluntary. He doesn't have the authority to shut down the mines.

"Everybody is going to tailor this to their individual needs and what works best for them," explained Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "What this does is it brings attention to what is done every day."

Although West Virginia has moved over the years to toughen its safety regulations, the history of the state's enforcement has not amounted to much. While Davitt McAteer was running the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton era, the federal regulations had a bit of a bite, but currently the MSHA is little more than a mealymouthed PR outfit for industry. As for Congress, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, headed by Wyoming Republican Michael B. Enzi, could scarcely get enough members to hold a hearing last week on a new mine safety director. The position, technically for assistant secretary of labor, has been empty for a year.

The man nominated for the job is Richard Stickler, 61, head of the Pennsylvania State Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003. His career includes a two-year stint at a Massey Energy subsidiary and three decades at Beth Energy Mines. He was called out of retirement to take this government post.

Since the deaths of 18 miners nationwide this year, some in Congress have been pressing for the reform of mine safety rules. Democratic congressman George Miller of California put out a report last week that said between 2001 and 2005, the Bush administration "delayed, weakened, or withdrew a total of at least 18 regulations intended to protect the health and safety of mine workers. At least three of those regulations were intended to boost safety measures that could have directly affected the outcomes at the Sago and Alma mines in West Virginia."

The report went on to say the administration had adopted one particular regulation that weakened safeguards against fires on conveyor belts in mines. Last week's deadly fire at the Alma mine looks suspiciously like it was started on a conveyor belt.

But Stickler doesn't think it is necessary to rewrite the law. "I think generally the laws are adequate," he said at his confirmation hearing last week. "The vast majority [of accidents] could have been prevented if the law was complied with."

Should there be more enforcement? asked Ohio Republican senator Mike De-Wine. "I think there's a compliance problem," Stickler said. "I wouldn't call it an enforcement problem."

DeWine asked him to explain what he was talking about. "MSHA enforces the law when it's at the job site, but MSHA is only at the job site a small percentage of the time," Stickler said. "It's a small percentage of the operators, but they only comply with the law when MSHA is at the mine."

Ryan Taylor, the spokesperson for Senator Enzi, explained his view on the matter in an interview.

Voice: Do you think that coal mines are complying with MSHA regulations? The senator doesn't have a position on that.

How effective is MSHA's enforcement?He thinks that it is effective, but there are always ways to make it more effective. We're trying to get together to rapidly advance mine technology systems, communications systems, and avoid future mine disasters.

Will the senator vote for Stickler?Chairman Enzi feels as though Richard Stickler has extensive experience in the mining industry, where he started as a miner, which gives him considerable qualifications to serve as assistant secretary of labor at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.


Halliburton's $385 million plan

Nothing stops Halliburton. Just as we're told Dick Cheney's old company is providing drinking water polluted with E. coli to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, we learn the Army Corps of Engineers is renewing a $385 million contract here at home so the company can make a contingency plan for a big new detention camp for the Department of Homeland Security. The buildings outlined in the plan would be used in the event of "an emergency influx of immigrants" into the U.S. and/or "to support the rapid development of new programs."

According to the contract, Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton construction subsidiary, will establish "temporary detention and removal operations program facilities."

"We are especially gratified to be awarded this contract because it builds on our extremely strong track record in the arena of emergency operations support," announced Bruce Stanski, executive vice president of KBR Government and Infrastructure. "We look forward to continuing the good work we have been doing to support our customers whenever and wherever we are needed."

A Homeland Security spokeswoman said last week that the contract actually is a continuation of an existing one under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "This is a contingency contract," she said.

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