‘Revolving Door’ a Bar to Mine Safety?

Published on
by
The Washington Post

‘Revolving Door’ a Bar to Mine Safety?

Critics: Government, business links tilt regulation toward coal firm interests

by
Kiberly Kindy and Dan Eggen

Democratic presidential contender Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., addresses the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York Tuesday Jan. 13, 2004. In a thinly veiled slap at Howard Dean, Gephardt said Tuesday that "railing against the system" isn't enough when it comes time to pick a challenger to President Bush on foreign policy. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

More than 200 former congressional staff
members, federal regulators and lawmakers are employed by the mining
industry as lobbyists, consultants or senior executives, including
dozens who work for coal companies with the worst safety records in the
nation, a Washington Post analysis shows.

The
revolving door has also brought industry officials into government as
policy aides in Congress or officials of the Mine Safety and Health
Administration (MSHA), which enforces safety standards.

The
movement between industry and government allows both to benefit from
crucial expertise, but mining safety experts say it often has led to a
regulatory system tilted toward coal company interests. That, they say,
has put miners at risk and left behind a flawed enforcement system that
probably contributed to this month's Massey Energy mine explosion in
West Virginia.

Industries from coal to
automobiles to food processing have long sought to capitalize on the
experience of former government officials or to win the appointment of
allies to federal agencies, and there is nothing illegal about doing
so.

"Mining is very specialized. You need
experience," said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of the
independent Mine Safety and Health News. "You can't just throw someone
in who has never worked in a mine."

But
such relationships have come under increased scrutiny after the West
Virginia disaster, which killed 29 miners, and Toyota's recent safety
problems. Former regulators hired by the automaker limited the scope of
federal probes and at least one vehicle recall, documents show.

'Serious and substantial' violations Among
mining regulators, 30-year industry veteran Richard E. Stickler created
the government's scoring system for identifying and reining in
dangerous mines when he was head of the MSHA.

The
scoring system, which President Obama singled out for criticism in the
Massey disaster, has allowed mines with hundreds of unresolved "serious
and substantial" violations to remain open.

In
an interview, Stickler, who was appointed by President George W. Bush,
defended the scoring methodology and said none existed before his
tenure. "It is based on facts and numbers," he said. "The biggest
problem now is some operators who are jamming up the system by
contesting nearly every violation they receive. We need more judges to
deal with that."

Dave
Lauriski, a Bush appointee who ran MSHA before Stickler, also worked in
the industry. He oversaw the writing of regulations in 2004 that
allowed conveyer belt tunnels to double as ventilation shafts. The
practice - advocated by coal companies but opposed by many safety
experts - was identified as a key contributor to a 2006 Massey mine
disaster, in which a fire killed two workers, records show.

Regulatory shifts Lauriski
said in an interview that his decision and subsequent regulations under
the 2006 Miner Act strengthened ventilation standards. Since leaving
government, Lauriski has been a mining consultant, advising operators
on compliance with federal safety and health laws.

Mining
experts said Democratic administrations often fill regulatory jobs with
labor union executives hostile to coal companies. Joseph A. Main,
Obama's MSHA head, directed health and safety programs for 22 years at
the United Mine Workers of America.

MSHA
spokesman Carl Fillicino said of Main: "Joe Main's career is not
revolving; it's evolving. His career has evolved from being a safety
advocate for miners at the United Mine Workers to being the nation's
safety advocate for all miners as a public servant."

The
Post's examination identified nearly a dozen former MSHA district
directors who recently took jobs as executives and consultants with
Massey or Murray Energy, the two U.S. mining companies with the worst
safety records. Their mines have been the sites of at least three
accidents in the past decade, claiming 40 lives. The two companies
together have more than 5,700 pending safety violations.

The
incentives for such job moves are significant, with industry typically
paying double or triple the salary of district directors, who average
about $85,000 a year.

Former
government officials also have been hired as industry lobbyists. The
mining sector, including coal operators and support companies, spent
more than $26 million on lobbying last year, part of a dramatic
increase since West Virginia's Sago mine disaster of 2006, which killed
12 and led to some safety reforms. Lobbying disclosures compiled by the
Center for Responsive Politics show that more than 170 people who once
worked as congressional staffers, mining regulators or members of
Congress are now registered industry lobbyists.

Coal
giant Peabody Energy, for example, which ranks fifth in mine safety
violations, employs about 50 lobbyists and spent nearly $6 million last
year to lobby on a range of issues, including climate change and energy
regulation, records show. Key representatives of the St. Louis-based
company include former Democratic House majority leader Richard A.
Gephardt of Missouri, disclosures show.

Peabody
and Gephardt officials did not respond to telephone messages, and
numerous other lobbyists and industry officials declined to comment.

Tony
Oppegard, a former MSHA regulator and a Kentucky lawyer who represents
miners, criticized what he said was a Bush-era practice of appointing
industry-friendly regulators.

"Bringing
people in with long ties to the mining industry to the very top of the
chain of command at MSHA, I think, had an extremely detrimental effect
on mining safety," he said. "They have changed the entire mission of
the agency, and it has a lasting effect for years to come. The mind-set
stays in place, and so do the policies."

Complaints
of undue industry influence at MSHA are not new. During congressional
hearings in 2006, some lawmakers questioned the high number of industry
executives then running the agency.

"I
underestimated the political environment that I would find myself in,"
Lauriski said. "I was open to a lot of public scrutiny. It was
something I had to overcome." He had recruited both of his deputies
from the industry.

Government experience
in mine regulation, as in many industries, is considered an asset at
law firms that represent coal companies before MSHA.

Page
H. Jackson, who spent 30 years with MSHA as a lawyer and technical
compliance director, left in 2008 to represent mining operators at the
Washington-based Jackson Kelly law firm. Jackson declined an interview
request.

The Federal Mine Safety and
Health Review Commission, which oversees safety disputes between
regulators and operators, also draws from industry. Former Massey chief
operating officer Stanley C. Suboleski served on the commission from
2001 to 2003 and now is back at Massey, serving on its board of
directors. Suboleski did not return a call seeking comment.

The
industry's influence in Washington was highlighted several years ago
during a fight over safety legislation co-sponsored by then-senator
Barack Obama. The 2007 bill would have allowed MSHA to issue subpoenas
and to more easily shut down troublesome mines.

The
proposals led to a lobbying frenzy involving more than 70 companies,
industry groups and unions. They ultimately were blocked in the Senate
after a veto threat from Bush and opposition from some coal-state
Democrats. The National Mining Association, the industry's leading
trade group, said the law would have created an "administrative
nightmare."

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

 

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