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Obama budget adds an MSHA district for W.Va.

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration plans to split its Southern West Virginia operations into two separate district offices in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and other, recurring problems at its existing District 4 operation.

The move follows through on a proposal that Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, floated in a congressional hearing just weeks after 29 miners died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Energy operation.

As part of its proposal to increase MSHA's overall budget by about 5 percent -- to $394 million -- the White House included $634,000 to cover costs of essentially creating a second district office.

The Obama budget contains additional money to help reduce a backlog of appealed enforcement cases, fund MSHA's efforts to eliminate black lung disease, and hire 30 new agency staffers.

During a budget briefing Monday, Main and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis declined to answer questions about the reasons for creating the new West Virginia district, and budget documents released so far provide only a glimpse at the administration's thinking.

"Of the 11 districts, District 4 has the most employees and the most significant workload with the smallest ratio of supervisory staff to line employees," MSHA said in one report called a budget justification. "It has become too large to effectively manage."

After two miners died five years ago in the January 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine in Logan County, an internal MSHA review report blasted inadequate inspections and enforcement of the mine and poor supervision by MSHA management.

But problems in District 4 had started before Aracoma and continued afterward.

Serious problems were found after a January 1991 fire that killed two workers, and a 1996 MSHA report warned the region had a disproportionate level of mining deaths compared to its coal production. And after the Aracoma fire, a November 2007 Inspector General's report found that MSHA's problems with completing required inspections were concentrated in District 4.

Currently, MSHA polices mining operations out of a District 4 office based in Mount Hope. That headquarters oversees field offices in Logan, Madison, Mount Carbon, Pineville, Princeton and Summersville. Mines in Northern West Virginia are handled by a separate, Morgantown-based district office.

Budget documents show the split would create a new district office in Pineville that would oversee field operations out of Logan and Welch. The Mount Hope district would manage field offices in Mount Carbon, Summersville and Madison, the budget documents show.

Last year, MSHA had told Congress that its proposal to split up District 4 into two district offices would cost more than $1 million and take 16 to 24 months to complete.

Main told lawmakers at the time that Southern West Virginia has the highest concentration of underground mines in the country, the most MSHA employees and the "most significant workload with the smallest ratio of supervisory staff to line employees."

"Its workload is almost 50 percent higher than the next busiest district in many key indicators such as contested citations and plan approvals," Main told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee in May 2010. "In order for management to be best able to spot problem or potentially problematic mines and react responsibly, it would seem that dividing this district into two districts of better management sizes would be the best approach."

Main later cited his proposal for splitting the district in response to an Inspector General's report that harshly criticized MSHA for in March 2009 dropping problem mines -- especially in Southern West Virginia -- from consideration for tougher enforcement action because of "resource limitations."

"A better response would have been to split District 4, so that all of the mines that need attention can receive attention," Main said in a June 2010 news release. "We have advocated for exactly that and are exploring ways to accomplish it. This is a better approach to handle the workload issues in District 4."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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