By KAREN MACPHERSON
January 21, 2006
In her budget testimony last year, Chao again asked Congress to increase the maximum fines levied by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department.
But the Bush Administration sent no legislation to Capitol Hill, and Congress took no action.
Three weeks ago, White House press secretary Scott McClellan highlighted the proposal as he fended off criticism of the administration's record on mine safety after 12 miners died in the Sago Mine in West Virginia.
McClellan said improved mine safety had been an administration priority. "In fact," he said, "this administration proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of Mine Safety and Health Administration rules."
But it was not until this week that the Bush administration finally sent legislation to Congress to increase the maximum fine to $220,000. Labor Department officials said the increase would help ensure that mine operators abide by safety rules, and congressional Republicans indicated they would seriously consider the proposal as congressional hearings begin on the Sago Mine tragedy.
"MSHA itself and all of its policies, which includes fines, certainly are under review by our committee," said Steve Forde, spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"Definitely fines and the structure of fines are going to be under consideration," Forde added.
Congressional critics, however, said the Labor Department already has the authority to raise fines for safety violations and that the current flurry of activity on the issue is window dressing designed to deflect attention from what they argue is the Bush administration's poor enforcement record.
"The Bush administration is attempting to hide the fact that it could have assessed much higher fines without needing to come to Congress for permission," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
"It has always had the authority to impose higher fines; while Congress sets the ceiling for fines, the administration sets the floor, and it has been hugging it for five years. The fact is that, under the Bush Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has cozied up to the mining industry, rather than aggressively protecting mineworkers' health and safety."
Tom Gavin, press secretary for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said the administration decided to act to increase fines to improve its image and to help reduce the budget deficit.
"The White House never put forward legislation or sent to Congress any formal proposal about it," Gavin said. "Now the White House is trotting it out in an effort to make themselves look a little better in light of the enormous violations at the Sago Mine and other mines around the country."
Ellen Smith, publisher of Mine Safety and Health News, contends that raising the top fine from $60,000 to $220,000 won't mean much unless the administration can also persuade Congress to change the "penalty criteria" used by administrative judges in determining whether to reduce fines proposed by MSHA.
Judges have to look at the financial condition of the company, Smith. If a fine impairs the company or hurts them in their business, then the penalty is going to get lowered.
"The whole thing about the Mine Act is that you can't fine a mine operator out of business. They have to be able to continue to be in business."
Smith pointed to a recent case in which a miner died and the mine operator was fined $53,000. The fine eventually was lowered to $18,000 "because of the financial condition of the operator and the size of the business," she said.
"Maybe increasing the fines is what's needed to be more of a deterrent," Smith said. "But if a guy losing his life isn't a deterrent, I don't know what is."
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, which represents mining companies, said her group hasn't yet taken a position on the administration's proposal to increase the maximum fine safety violations.
"Historically, we believe that our success in reducing accidents and fatalities can largely be attributed to the introduction of new technologies, better training, (and) increased safety awareness," Raulston said.
"That's where historically we have focused our efforts. I think that everyone will be looking at whether or not increased fines can play a role. But that's not something that has been identified as increasing safety in the past."
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