No tsunami of regulations, proposals to improve safety for miners languish in White House review

(Update below (1/10/2014))

Obama’s “regulatory tsunami” is the term used by the US Chamber of Commerce to describe an expected flood of new regulations. Their message to the business community is that the floodgates will soon open and all of them will drown in red tape. The Chamber’s president Tom Donohue said it last month in a speech, and he’s been saying it for years. But him saying it, and us seeing it are two different things.

In the worker health and safety world, there’s been no tsunami. For Obama’s first five years, it’s been more like a slow drip at the kitchen faucet. Remember, this is the White House that sat for more than 900 days on a proposal by OSHA to protect silica-exposed workers. The nation’s mine workers are experiencing the same thing from the Anything-But-a-Tsunami Obama Administration. Like OSHA's proposed rule on silica, these are proposals ---two of them---on ways to improve safety for US mine workers.

One is a proposal by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to require proximity detection devices on mobile equipment used in underground mines. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward, Jr. has (sadly) written frequently about miners being crushed by equipment (here, here, here, here, here.) There's little doubt that proximity detection systems will save worker' lives. This proposal has been “under review” by the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for more than 800 days.

The other is a proposal by MSHA to standardize the way it classifies the severity of violations for the purpose of assessing monetary penalties. If proposed and eventually adopted, the rule will lead to fewer disagreements and wrangling about penalty amounts by MSHA and mine operators. The benefit for miners is less time spent by MSHA on litigation and more time available to conduct inspections. This proposal has been “under review” by OIRA for more than 700 days.

What's especially unnerving is that neither of these proposed rules is considered by the Administration to be “economically significant.” So what’s the delay?

When asked, Obama appointees will give you a canned response, such as “OIRA staff are working as quickly as possible,” or “complex rules need a lot of scrutiny in order to get them right.” A recent investigation by the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin discovered something different. It wasn't about these rules being complex. Eilperin wrote that the Obama Administration

“systematically delayed enacting a series” of regulations “to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election.”

Before long, the Obama White House will begin worrying about this year’s mid-term elections. Given their past performance, I don’t expect a tsunami of new rules to improve workers' safety. I hope they will at least open the kitchen spigot to release some of these proposals.

(Update 1/10/2014:  MSHA has withdrawn its plan to issue a proposal on proximity detection devices for mobile mining equipment used in underground mines.  I suspect it was not something MSHA's leadership decided to do, but rather, asked to do so by White House officials.  I can't help but repeat, "where's this regulatory tsunami?"

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very disappointing... should mine safety advocates start calling it a "war on mine safety regs"?