Sometime just before midnight on December 19, 1984, the Wilberg Mine in Huntington, Utah, caught fire. Even now, investigators can't agree on what sparked it--the best guess is either an overheated air compressor or an electrical arc on a piece of mining equipment. But the results were depressingly clear: Twenty-seven miners perished in the coal-fired blaze.
Mining disasters are investigated by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. On the morning of December 20, technical workers in two of MSHA's offices, the Pittsburgh headquarters and the Denver field office, were notified of the Wilberg fire. Upon discovering that there were no commercial airplanes that could take them and their equipment to the Utah site, the Pittsburgh crew appropriated two Air Force planes to fly them to Grand Junction, whose airport is closest to Huntington.
Due to logistical difficulties and poor weather, however, the group did not arrive until 25 hours after first learning of the disaster. Meanwhile, the Denver team was on the scene within eight hours, helping to stabilize the mine and beginning to investigate the incident.
Recently, the response time of the two obscure federal offices to a decade-old blaze in another state has become of close interest to Colorado's congressional delegation. Last summer the MSHA proposed moving the Denver division's 39 technical workers to another office in West Virginia. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, MSHA's boss, hopes the consolidation of the offices will save money.
MSHA workers here quickly protested, claiming that the move would not save any money. Worse, they say, it could compromise mine safety because the proposed relocation would leave none of MSHA's engineers west of the Mississippi River, the fastest-growing mining region. The Denver workers also suggest that the plan to merge them into the West Virginia office--which would have to be expanded--has much more to do with patronage than with parsimony.
Four months ago the local engineers contacted Representative David Skaggs, a Boulder Democrat, who quickly convinced the entire Colorado delegation to order an investigation by the General Accounting Office. "It's very hard to figure out how the Department of Labor can make their case" for moving the Denver workers in order to save money, Skaggs says.
The GAO's report is not due for another month or so. No matter how it plays out, however, the dispute illustrates the endless small struggles that accompany many of government's attempts to save money. Congress has stated that it hopes to have the federal budget balanced by 2002. Yet the fact that even a relatively minor proposal (Reich says the MSHA move would save a mere $500,000 a year) can quickly escalate to a battle pitting all eight members of Colorado's congressional delegation against the Department of Labor shows how difficult reaching that goal will be.
Created in 1969 following a mining disaster in Huntington, West Virginia, that killed 78 men, MSHA has come under intense pressure in the past couple of years. A combination of general government belt-tightening and bad publicity (a half-dozen bureaucrats in Kentucky were indicted for accepting bribes from mining companies in exchange for not issuing mine-safety citations) has led several congressmen to call for the agency to be merged into the larger Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Alternately, last year a Senate committee called for MSHA's budget to be cut in half.
As part of the effort to corral its own budget, MSHA announced last summer that it planned to move Denver's 39 technical workers--engineers and other specially trained professionals--to its West Virginia office. That office, in tiny Tridelphia, would be physically expanded to accommodate the former Denver workers. The Department of Labor estimates the cost of the move and the renovations to be about $2 million, after which the agency would save about a half-million dollars per year.
Although Skaggs and other critics point out that the move doesn't make sense intuitively--why move the engineers from their only presence west of the Mississippi when so many mines exist out here?--the labor department marshaled a wad of statistics to support its position: MSHA's two main offices, in Pittsburgh, already are in the East; and 95 percent of the country's coal mines--and nearly 70 percent of mining fatalities--remain east of the Mississippi, despite the West's larger number of metal and non-metal mines. Supporters also contend that, the Wilberg disaster notwithstanding, MSHA's response time to Western mining accidents would not suffer.
Complicating matters even more is the man pushing the consolidation. No one argues that J. Davitt McAteer--who, as an assistant labor secretary, heads the mine agency--has impeccable safety credentials. When the 1968 West Virginia mining disaster took the lives of some of his friends, McAteer, an attorney, began working almost exclusively on mine-safety issues, including a stint at Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Indeed, in the more than twenty years before his 1993 appointment to head MSHA, McAteer had done almost nothing but push for tighter mine-safety rules.
Unfortunately for his proposal to move Denver's safety engineers out of Denver and into Tridelphia, however, McAteer also is a native of West Virginia, a state that, thanks to longtime senator Robert Byrd, has enjoyed a lengthy history of pork and patronage.
"McAteer is from West Virginia," says Steve Dmytriw, an engineer in the Denver office. "And this plan is nothing but patronage for his home state." Even Skaggs is skeptical. "I'm aware of those suspicions, and I think that's a valid reason to be concerned and take a hard look" at McAteer's proposal, the congressman says.
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By the end of last summer, critics of the move to the East had responded to MSHA's cost-saving plan. They laid out their case in a report prepared by the Retired Denver Mining Employees Association--which, despite its impressive name, Dmytriw concedes is really just a handful of local guys who recently left their MSHA jobs. Armed with that report, in September Skaggs persuaded all six of Colorado's representatives and its two senators to sign a letter to Reich calling for a halt to the Tridelphia renovations and for the start of a GAO investigation to determine which side is right.
Despite all the tossing about of facts and figures and budget-balancing promises, though, the decision of whether to move Denver's mine-watchers to West Virginia may come down to more mundane--and political--concerns. For instance, while Skaggs says he really is interested in determining whether the consolidation will save money without compromising safety, those aren't the only factors he's considering. A big part of his motivation for becoming involved in the dispute, he adds, is "a concern of longtime constituents who have worked in Denver for years."
And while those constituents say they genuinely are worried about the safety of Western miners, they also have their own worries. "We consider West Virginia to be a third-world country," points out Dmytriw. "I don't want to move there.