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Democrats asking Congress to review safety, enforcement

WASHINGTON -- Democrats called yesterday for congressional hearings into mine safety and the Bush administration's enforcement of mine regulations, after the explosion and collapse in West Virginia that left 12 miners dead.

Sago Mine was cited for repeated safety violations over the past two years, including multiple citations for inadequate ventilation and failure to fully secure the mine against a roof collapse. The Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a total of 208 citations for alleged violations at the site last year, up from 68 in 2004.

Most of the citations were issued before the current owners took over the mine in November, but International Coal Group Inc. was cited by the federal government three times in five days in December for allowing flammable coal dust to collect in a work area. Those citations were among 17 issued last year at the mine for ''accumulation of combustible materials." Anker West Virginia was the former owner.

The violations last year have drawn total fines of $24,000, with scores of penalties for the minimum of $60. Some citations issued late in the year have not been assessed fines yet, but the amount of the fines has led Democrats to raise questions about Bush administration oversight of industry.

''One might expect massive penalty assessments under federal law for such a dismal record," Representative George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees labor issues, wrote yesterday to the committee chairman, John A. Boehner, and formally requested an investigation.

''These penalties included assessments for noncompliance with requirements related to mine ventilation plans, accumulation of combustible materials, and roof support," the letter continued. ''Most of the fines ranged from $60 to $440, despite what would appear to be repeat violations."

The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, defended the Bush administration's record of mine enforcement. He called it a top priority for the first five years President Bush has been in office.

McClellan noted that the administration has called for a fourfold increase in the level of fines and penalties that can be imposed on companies, though Congress has not acted on those proposals. None of the fines issued at Sago approached the current maximum of $60,000.

Under Bush, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has worked more closely with mine owners than under previous presidents, according to union officials. The government has formed formal ''partnerships" between companies and agency officials and is shying away from imposing heavy fines and sanctions, said Phil Smith, a spokesman for United Mine Workers of America.

''They've gone from being an agency that enforces the regulations and puts penalties in, to something that's a lot more almost touchy-feely," Smith said. Workers at Sago Mine do not belong to a union, although Smith said United Mine Workers wants an investigation to address systemic problems, and thereby help all coal miners.

J. Davitt McAteer, a mine safety specialist who was President Clinton's assistant labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said there has been a major shift from enforcement to cooperation under the Bush's administration.

''I'm not opposed to cooperation, but I'd suggest to you that -- much like the need for highway patrols -- you have to have enforcement for the laws to be followed," McAteer said.

He said it would be impossible to know whether the Clinton administration would have shut down Sago Mine.

But the large number of violations should have raised flags for federal officials and the company, McAteer said.

Bruce Watzman, vice president of safety and health at the National Mining Association, an industry group, said the violations at Sago do not appear to be ''out of the ordinary" for a mine its size.

He said it was too soon to say whether problems identified there contributed to Monday's explosion, and added that the mine's current operators had promptly addressed all of the violations.

Watzman also trumpeted the partnerships the Bush administration has built with industry leaders, calling them a valuable tool for working to enhance the safety and productivity of mines.

''We think it's a good way to do business," he said.

Miller also asked for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to examine whether the administration has placed people with ''proper regulatory experience" in jobs overseeing mine safety.

Bush's first head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration was a mining-industry veteran, David Lauriski. Miller identified four other officials who worked in the industry before being charged with regulating companies.

''With mining company officials at the helm" of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the agency's focus has clearly shifted away from protecting miners, Miller wrote.

Also yesterday, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote a letter to the committee chairman, Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, requesting an investigation. Kennedy has long been critical of the Bush administration's oversight of mine safety.

''We owe it to these miners and their families to find out what happened and whether this accident could have been prevented," wrote Kennedy.

An Enzi aide said the chairman had not decided whether to hold hearings. Boehner, the House chairman, said he would await the outcome of the Bush administration's own investigation.

McClellan said no federal officials had been involved in conveying the erroneous news that 12 miners had been found alive. But a Mine Safety and Health Administration official, who was not named, called an aide to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, to confirm news reports that miners survived, according to Rockefeller's office.

The communications breakdown must be investigated along with the safety problems, Rockefeller said yesterday.

''We must figure out what went wrong in the Sago Mine itself and where the company must answer for its safety record," he said.

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