Monday, March 31, 2008

Stickler's Arithmetic

MSHA has come in for a mention in a Federal Times article, "Safety agencies overwhelmed by surging inspection workload." What's new in the article: some of the regulated are now asking for more regulation. But as with the New York Times article discussed yesterday, the mine safety information is dated:

And many of the administration’s picks of leaders to run safety agencies have been executives from affected industries...

One example is the administration’s most recent pick to run the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration: Richard Stickler, a former coal company executive. His nomination was opposed by many members of Congress, who criticized Stickler’s ties to the industry and the poor safety record at the mines he managed. Many of those mines had accident rates above the national average....

As everyone in mining knows, Richard Stickler is not a recent nominee.

Stickler was nominated to head MSHA more than 2 1/2 years ago. He has actually been in charge at MSHA for most that time, first quietly as a "special assistant" ensconced in Labor Department headquarters, while his nomination was pending.

Starting in October 2006 -- after the Senate declined to confirm him -- he was formally given the job of MSHA Assistant Secretary under a recess appointment. That appointment was good only until December 31, 2007. However, Stickler, now using the title "Acting Assistant Secretary," continues in place.

Stickler's track record at MSHA is therefore more relevant than his industry experience. In fairness, it is very much mixed.

Stickler got his recess appointment several months after a trio of disasters rocked MSHA in early 2006: the Sago mine explosion, which killed 13, the Kentucky Darby mine explosion, which killed five, and the Aracoma Alma fire, in which two died. By all accounts, he earned the respect of many as he guided the agency through the massive investigations, internal reviews, and many changes and initiatives made necessary by the MINER Act, which Congress passed in response to those accidents. Others, including some members of Congress, have called the progress too slow.

On Stickler's watch, last August, came the Crandall Canyon outburst in Utah, in which nine were killed in two separate incidents, three of them during the attempted rescue. MSHA lost one of its own in the botched rescue attempt, something that had not happened in nearly 30 years.

Routine administration of some MSHA programs also began to look tattered. The inspection completion rate dropped to disturbing lows. Civil penalties fell through large cracks in the processing system, allowing some violators to get away scot-free. More inspectors were hired, but too late for their training to be complete in time to fill gaps as they arose in the MSHA workforce.

A recent briefing by Stickler on the proposed MSHA budget for 2009 was also mixed -- a strong enforcement message came along with with some sheer flim-flam in the math department.

Asked how he would rspond to mine operators who complained that the effort needed to contest new, higher MSHA penalties would draw their limited resources away from accident prevention, Stickler responded:

... Put the money in preventing the violations in the first place....All these violations can be prevented, and most of it is a matter of resources. It costs money. And you can wait until MSHA comes and wrotes a violation because you have combustible materials on a conveyor belt, then you clean it up and pay, I think our average fine last year was about $700 a fine, or you can go out and hire enough peple to keep the combustible materials cleaned up. You put on better belt wipers. Keep the belt aligned so it doesn't spill.

Fair enough. But on the same occasion, Stickler claimed that a proposed budget cut for MSHA was actually an increase, in a piece of -- I'm sorry, but that's how it was -- double talk fit to prove that 2 + 2 = 5.

The Labor Department's own budget book showed that the Administration is asking for a cut of $1.8 million for the agency, compared with actual apropriations for fiscal 2008. Asked about this at the news conference, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao professed ignorance of any MSHA cut, and deferred to Stickler, who stated that the Department's own figures

may be confused.

Stickler went on to say that the $1.8 million proposed cut is actually a $18.6 million proposed increase. How can that be? Easy, just discount $20 million in "non-reoccurring or one-time expenditures" from the current year.

That even sounds vaguely plausible unless you look at what Stickler listed as "non-reoccurring" expenses": Overtime so that inspectors can get to all the mines as required by law while the agency is shorthanded. Improvements at the National Mine Academy facility. Equipment purchases.

And what were the alleged "program increases" for 2009? New inspectors for metal and nonmetal mines. More improvements at the National Mine Academy. Inflation.

Hello? Increases for inflation aren't really program increases. You are not getting any more for your money.

Facility upgrades and equipment purchases go on all the time, in some years more than others. To get inspectors to all the mines as required, you can pay overtime, you can hire more inspectors, you make whatever adjustments are necessary from year to year. None of these is an extraordinary one-time expenditure; they are all mangement decisions of the type that all MSHA managers have always had to make under whatever budget.

What's more, the Department's budget booklet showed a whopping proposed cut of $9.7 million for coal mine safety and health -- along with lesser cuts in standards development, penalty assessments, training and engineering support, and "program administration."

Real proposed increases would go only to metal and nonmetal mine safety and health ($11 million there) and MSHA data management. These increases surely are needed. But the concept of making those limited increases at the expense of other MSHA activities surely deserves the closest of scrutiny.

The attempt to bill a $1.8 million cut as an $18.6 million "increase" was pure P.R.

The MSHA press release, if you read it carefully, clarifies the real point: The current MSHA request is actually $18.6 million increase (rounded up to $19 million) over what the White House requested last year. Isn't that an interesting coincidence?

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