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Susan F. Lapis/Southwings
A mountaintop mining operation in West Virginia. Debris is deposited in valleys.

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. Graphic: Mining Mountains

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Bush, George W


Mines and Mining


Friends in the White House Come to Coal's Aid


Published: August 9, 2004

WASHINGTON - In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.

Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official - Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease.

The reintroduction of the coal dust measure came after the federal agency had abandoned a series of Clinton-era safety proposals favored by coal miners while embracing others favored by mine owners.

The agency's effort to rewrite coal regulations is part of a broader push by the Bush administration to help an industry that had been out of favor in Washington. As a candidate four years ago, Mr. Bush promised to expand energy supplies, in part by reviving coal's fortunes, particularly in Appalachia, where coal regions will also help decide how swing states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio vote this year.

The president has also made good on a 2000 campaign pledge to ease environmental restrictions that industry officials said were threatening jobs in coal country. That promise led many West Virginia miners, who traditionally voted Democratic, to join coal operators in supporting Mr. Bush. It helped him win the state's five electoral votes, ultimately the margin of victory.

Safety and environmental regulations often shift with control of the White House, but the Bush administration's approach to coal mining has been a particularly potent example of the blend of politics and policy.

In addition to Mr. Lauriski, who spent 30 years in the coal industry, Mr. Bush tapped a handful of other industry executives and lobbyists to help oversee safety and environmental regulations.

In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.

In an interview, Mr. Lauriski said that the proposals that were canceled were unnecessary. He said the agency had instead concentrated on other measures "we believed were important to pursue."

He cited a revamping of evacuation procedures after an explosion killed 13 miners in Alabama in 2001, and requirements that workers be told about the presence and dangers of hazardous chemicals.

Mr. Lauriski said the coal dust measure would improve miners' health by encouraging the use of equipment to limit how much dust miners breathe.

The Bush administration's efforts to change the rules have led to battles with labor unions and environmentalists. Congress and the courts have stepped in to temporarily block some of the initiatives, including the coal dust measure.

"They generally want to do whatever the industry wants," said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and member of the House Resources Committee who has been a critic of the administration's regulation of the industry. "You don't even have to change the law. You can change the regulations and don't do enforcement."

How any of these changes may affect the number of coal mining injuries and deaths is unclear. The rate of injuries has declined over the last 15 years. And a coal miner's odds of dying on the job are about the same as they were in the last years of the Clinton administration, government statistics show. The death tally, though, does not include black-lung disease, which still kills hundreds of miners every year.

But union leaders and some former agency officials see a direct link between the death rate and one specific proposal that was shelved. Before leaving office, the Clinton administration proposed updating technology to better protect workers from the two-story-high trucks that haul coal. Since that proposal was withdrawn in 2001, 16 miners have been killed in hauling accidents above ground.

The administration has also tried to make surface mining more economical by making it easier for coal companies to blast off the tops of mountains and dispose of rubble in valleys and streams.

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