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More Pressure Comes To MSHA Over COVID-19 Response

Diesel fuel cars at a trainyard in Morrill.
Alan Nash

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released a report recommending changes to the agency responsible for keeping mines safe nationwide. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has been under pressure from unions and some federal lawmakers to create temporary emergency standards in response to COVID-19. Taylor Kuykendall, a senior reporter with S&P Global Market Intelligence, begins by discussing what actions MSHA has taken so far.

Taylor Kuykendall: What we've seen from them is essentially a website that has a bunch of tips from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for general workplaces and other government sources that they've compiled together and made it sort of mine specific. It's a couple hundred words with some links to other websites. And since they rolled that out, they've put out a couple fliers that basically tell you to wash your hands, cover coughs... things that are kind of basic. And we've not seen [anything] that much more public from them on what they're doing other than that. Now, we do know that they've taken some additional steps; they've tried to keep some inspectors away from mines that might be highly infected. And the report kind of revealed that they've done some other things that are more informative or set aside regular training to put that off until later.

Because, just to try to comply with social distancing guidelines. But yeah, that's what we're kind of seeing the difference here is, I think, if you read the work from the United Mine Workers of America is basically that they say that the agency could do so much more. They could ensure that if there's a Personal Protective Gear standard, there's a minimum and met everywhere across all mines and it's just a little bit more enforceable than what they have right now because the problem that they have is they've essentially given some best practices and tips but not really anything that's explicitly enforceable. You can't go out and fine these mines without some ambiguity about how it's going to turn out.

Cooper McKim: There was very little known about what MSHA was doing behind the scenes and this report came out... from my perspective, it seemed like a lot of people were surprised and then it seemed like it was somewhat revealing as far as what MSHA was actually doing and what some of its considerations have been in the past few months.

TK: It was kind of a surprise. I wasn't aware that the Inspector General was looking into this issue. We've known that there wasn't an emergency temporary standard and the people that work in the mines, at least the unionized people that work in those mines, were asking for those additional protections. The report certainly offers a whole lot more detail and does, I think, help confirm that they really haven't gone too far beyond asking for these kinds of like, again, unenforceable pieces of guidance.

"The problem that they have is they've essentially given some best practices and tips but not really anything that's explicitly enforceable."

  Again, when I say that there's some of these larger companies are doing a lot to try to protect their miners. And some miners might even listen to this and think, 'Hey, I'm doing all these extra things at the mine, they don't know what they're talking about. We're being very careful.' The problem is, and what the UMWA [United Mine Workers of America] has asked for, and what I think this report highlights, is that those kind of protections aren't guaranteed at every mine. And if you look at mining sectors past, I mean, you can find all kinds of examples of where people have cut corners. And I think one of the fears might be that, especially with the additional pressures that have been put on by the worsened economy that there might be some temptation to do that. Again, it doesn't guarantee that mine operators are doing that, but, you know, there's a very real concern and I think that it's caused a lot of frustration for people at the UMWA, but you also saw this from lawmakers that MSHA is not stepping up and doing something more than they're required to do.

McKim: Any other takeaways in your eyes? Or anything that surprised you from the report?

Kuykendall: So I think one of the things that's kind of left unclear to me, at the top of the report, there's the OIG gives their recommendations. They recommend that MSHA monitor this backlog of enforcement and inspection activities, that's just bound to pile up because, they're adjusting to COVID. Everybody, everywhere that's working, understands that some things aren't getting done now that usually would be in there. They talk about that, watching that and figure out how to solve it once this is all over. The second one I thought was interesting because they said that they should be monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks in mines and using that information to reevaluate their decision to not issue that emergency temporary standard.

Then said that MSHA agrees with both recommendations. I think if you read through the letter from the MSHA chief at the end, it's not quite clear that they give a full-hearted agreement with that, right?

It doesn't sound like they're not agreeing in such a way that means that they're going to go out and write an emergency temporary standard, but it does seem like they're open to the idea. And I think it's going to be very, very interesting to watch to see how this all plays out. There's obviously a lot of pressure on them now to do this. And I think one thing we'd be remiss not to mention is that we're months and months into this pandemic; a lot of the exposure that could have been prevented or that a lot of the good that a temporary emergency standard might be able to do has kind of passed us. Obviously, that doesn't mean that it's not going to do good going forward, but I think it has been kind of surprising to me how slow this process has moved. Usually something with a title like temporary emergency standard isn't the kind of thing you would hope to take weeks or even months to form.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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