WASHINGTON -- Facing budget cuts under congressional sequestration, the federal agency overseeing mine safety is planning to severely cut back its efforts to litigate cases against companies that have been charged with breaking mine safety laws.
A backlog of fines issued by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has persisted for years, with coal and mineral companies still owing the feds some $70 million for health and safety violations on their properties. MSHA has made strides toward clearing out that backlog recently, in large part because of millions of dollars in funding used to bring in more government lawyers to handle the cases.
But faced with the same across-the-board cuts now hitting federal agencies, the Labor Department plans to shut down or downsize three offices devoted expressly to litigating some 10,700 mine safety cases involving fines that companies are contesting, according to a letter sent from concerned Democrats to Labor Department officials earlier this month. Thirty out of 74 attorneys handling cases in those offices would be laid off, and others would be subject to furloughs, states the letter, signed by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Nick Rahall (W.Va.).
They noted that the cuts to the backlog efforts are more severe than most other cuts under sequestration.
"While the sequester is imposing hardship on multiple agencies within DOL, these staff cuts to the backlog effort are plainly disproportionate relative to other work carried out in the [Labor Department's] Solicitor's Office," they wrote. "We find this decision to be unacceptable and instead we believe the Solicitor's Office should apply only proportional cuts to this program activity, so that efforts can be maximized to reduce the backlog of mine safety cases."
The additional lawyers working on the backlog cases are not full-time, permanent staff, but are instead working under contract. The steeper cuts to the backlog effort presumably help protect staff elsewhere in the agency from longer furloughs under sequestration.
According to a congressional source who was on a call between lawmakers and labor officials, the latter said the only option to avoid significantly scaling back the backlog effort was to give more furlough days to other agency employees.
"Sequestration has presented the Department with difficult decisions about resources," a Labor Department spokesman said in an email. "We will continue to work to fulfill our mission to enforce the law to protect our nation’s miners, while taking the across-the-board cuts required by law under sequestration."
Fines against employers serve as one of MSHA's primary tools in enforcing safety laws in what remains one of the country's more dangerous industries. Nineteen coal miners died on the job last year, as well as eight so far in 2013, according to MSHA records. Each year, hundreds of miners die from black lung disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But many fines related to health and safety simply go unpaid as mining companies declare bankruptcy, go out of business, or fight the penalties in court. MSHA watchdogs have long complained that allowing companies to ignore the fines ultimately takes any tooth out of the law.
For instance, Massey Energy, the company deemed responsible for the tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia in 2010, hadn't paid the feds $1.1 million out of $1.7 million in fines owed when the disaster occurred. More than a quarter of a million dollars' worth of those fines were already considered delinquent.
The cuts are apparently already hampering MSHA's ability to enforce the law and recover fines. According to Mine Safety and Health News, a judge recently declined the government's request to delay a trial because of cuts to the backlog efforts. MSHA had argued that it didn't have time to prepare a briefing for the case because one of the backlog offices was being closed. The case involved fines against Elk Run Coal Company in West Virginia.
"The [Labor] Secretary has decided that it could make cuts to personnel tasked with litigating under the Mine Act, even as the backlog continues," Administrative Law Judge Thomas McCarthy wrote in a court order. "Without discounting or minimizing the personal toll such cuts have on the people tasked with enforcing the Mine Act, the downsizing of the Secretary's efforts to address the backlog does not justify" delaying the case.
McCarthy called the decision to shutter the backlog office "a self-imposed handicap."
As Mine Safety and Health News has reported, MSHA also plans to significantly cut back its safety grants to states due to sequestration. Such grants ultimately go to coal companies to perform government-required training on safety and health issues.
Correction: This story originally said MSHA was shutting down the backlog offices. In fact, it's the Labor Department's Office of the Solicitor.