In the last month or so, MSHA issued so many press releases more than one page of editorial space was dedicated to it (See Violations & Penalties, p. 6). Some readers would probably prefer to see Coal Age refuse to publish that information. The agency made three important moves related to the coal mining business: It put 15 operators on notice for a potential pattern of violations (PoV); MSHA issued a new policy for scheduling a safety and health conference; and the agency issued withdrawal orders to mine operators for unpaid fines.
Reading between the lines, one can easily see that the agency is sending some signals. The PoV notification is the regulator’s version of the scarlet letter and only time will tell how well that tactic works. The agency press releases, however, quote Michael A. Davis, MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary for operations, rather than Richard Stickler, the Bush administration’s recess appointment to head the agency. The team at Patton Boggs covers the details surrounding the change in the conference procedures well (See Legally Speaking, p. 88), but readers should note that the number of citations contested annually have grown from 7,000 to more than 42,000 under Stickler’s leadership. In reference to the withdrawal orders, the agency said, “This is the first time the agency has issued a withdrawal order for failure to pay a delinquent fine.” Are they threatening a new approach to collect fines?
In one afternoon during March, it seemed that the EPA decided to and then not to take a hard-nosed approach to mountaintop mining permits. They issued a press statement regarding two permits, which was quickly disparaged in the press by the National Mining Association and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and then the EPA clarified their position before the evening commute. In fact, the exchange between the UMWA and the Charleston Gazette over the union jobs provided by mountaintop mining (hosted on the newspaper’s coal mining blog) lasted longer and was more interesting. Similar to its do-nothing stance on global warming, which I supported, the Bush administration took no position on mountaintop mining.
Finally, Lee Buchsbaum’s article on the FutureGen project shows just how badly politicians can behave. There is no need to spoil the surprise, but among many seriously bad choices made by the Bush administration, Buchsbaum references a General Accounting Office report that stated that Bush’s inaction may have set back clean coal technology in the U.S. by as much as a decade.
Can the new administration right the regulatory ship? In retrospect, they can’t do much worse, or maybe they can. One thing is certain: they will have to undo the Bush legacy before they can more forward in a meaningful way.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief